I heard on the radio that one out of every six baby boomers has a tattoo. The most recent trend in the skin trade is granny tats, women over 60 years old (such as Susan Sarandon) getting their first tattoo. Apparently, this is so they can fit in better at the nursing home; or because it won’t fade or cause regret when they get older. Whatever. Frank Turner likes tattoos. He’s a former punk now folk rocker with a hard edge, a winning smile, and tattoos all over his body—including his hands. He even wrote a song about them, simply called “Tattoo”.
There was a time when getting a tattoo was a rebellious act. I think the last time must have been 1967 (circa the Who’s “Tattoo”). Baby boom demographics have changed the zeitgeist. Now tattoos are for old people and Turner thinks “There’s not so many jobs that I can get these days / With these marks all over my hands.” I can’t think of any, off hand. (Yes, that’s a joke). What songs such as this show is that Turner is a romantic. He wants to fight battles of good versus evil, heroes versus villains, where there is a strong sense of morality. That’s not a bad thing. It makes for some really strong, anthemic music.
Turner writes brawny songs in plain language. He’s clear and direct, even when he gets sensitive, as in “Plain Sailing Weather” where he admits “I’ve fucked up every little goddamn thing.” Turner has said Tape Deck Heart is a break-up album, and almost every song is about loss, especially the more Bruce Springsteen cum Replacement-like rockers such as “Losing Day”, “The Way I Tend to Be” and “We Shall Not Overcome”. Turner’s voice goes from a whisper to a scream to get himself and his band pumped up. He’s infectious and engages the listener on a primal level, even if one disagrees with what he’s saying.
Turner knows that he’s writing music, not poetry. He announces:
I’d like to teach you four simple words,
So the next time you come to a show,
You could sing those words back at me,
Like they’re the only ones that you know.
And what are these four little words? “I Want to Dance” (the song which these suggestions are from). Despite Turner’s punk politics and pleas laden with heartache, he knows the guitar in his hand is more than a weapon against fascism. It can move people to action of a different sort. Better friendships are made on the parquet than the barricades.
He also has a strong sense of humor that leavens his messages, whether he’s prodding one to move or pleading for affection, with attitude. He tells parents not to be too kind to their kids or else they grow up to sing about the terrible things the parents did. He explicitly compares Shakespeare’s lover Romeo with the sexual explorer and lead singer of the rock group Kiss on “Wherefore Art Thou Gene Simmons”. The connections between the two are deeper than one might imagine, and maybe really are only imagined by Turner. It doesn’t matter. Turner’s humor cuts to the heart of loneliness and the quest for a permanent love.
Turner’s accompanied by his usual backing musicians, The Sleeping Souls (Ben Lloyd—electric guitar, mandolin, vocals; Tarrant Anderson—bass guitar; Matt Nasir—piano, organ, keyboards, string arrangements, vocals; and Nigel Powell—drums, percussion, mandolin, vocals) and producer Rich Costey (Weezer, Shins, Nine Inch Nails), who Turner is working with for the first time. The familiarity of the band with each other and Costey’s well-structured layering of sounds create a very smooth product that allows Turner to showcase his rough voice and punk guitar playing. Or as he puts it in another context, “I play cowboy chords / with these air conditioned words.” The production reveals his reckless yearning for more and contradictory desire for the safety of domesticity through its very slickness and reinforces the theme of Turner’s lyrics in this way. It’s a need trick, and Turner, his band, and Costey pull it off very well.