Frank Turner: Positive Songs for Negative People review – sincere but undemanding singalong rock

As divisive a figure as he is – punk hero to some, Eton phoney to others – Turner’s sixth album is a deeply straightforward and unambiguously earnest affair

Frank Turner cuts a curious and divisive figure in modern British rock. To his fans, the singer-songwriter is a beacon of earnest integrity and punk authenticity. They hold his rise to arena-filling status – from a punk scene so underground that his early gigs frequently took place not in clubs or pubs but fans’ homes – as a bulwark against the vagaries and machinations of the music industry: in a world of hype and manufacture, Turner has become hugely successful through the old-fashioned expedients of talent and simple hard graft. Judging by his recent bestselling memoir, The Road Beneath My Feet, Turner seemed to spend most of the past decade gamely playing gigs in the kind of places no one else ever bothers to play: Devizes, Maidenhead, Trowbridge, Lossiemouth.

To his detractors, however, Turner is an Eton-educated phoney, a reactionary whose libertarian politics make him less like his idol Joe Strummer than a kind of guitar-slinging equivalent of a columnist. If those in the former camp are legion – the tour supporting this sixth full-length studio album winds up at London’s 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace – then those in the latter are pretty vociferous. After a piece appeared on the Guardian website collating Turner’s fruitier thoughts on socialism and state funding of the arts, he claimed to have received 100 death threats a day, impressive even by the standards of an era in which sending death threats appears to be some people’s answer to pretty much everything, from the announcement of the Glastonbury bill to the romantic entanglements of Miley Cyrus’s boyfriend.

The strange thing is that, in the argument over Turner’s worth or otherwise, his music barely gets mentioned: the shouting about his politics or his background or his DIY ethics drowns it out. You might think Turner himself would want to redress the balance, but anyone who read The Road Beneath My Feet without hearing his albums first would finish the book with literally no idea what they sounded like.

A churlish voice might suggest that’s because there’s not a great deal to say about Frank Turner’s music. For all his background as frontman of post-hardcore band Million Dead and his predilection for referencing obscure punk bands in interviews, what Turner now deals in is unashamedly undemanding stadium rock: the speedy, two-minute-long Out of Breath is Positive Songs for Negative People’s only obvious reminder of the underground punk scene that bore him, and even that comes decorated with a radio-friendly melody and, a little unexpectedly, barrelhouse piano.

There’s occasionally a vaguely folky undertow on display: during the mandolin-heavy The Opening Act of Spring, you’re struck by the feeling that Positive Songs for Negative People is probably 2015’s only major British album release about which you can say that the listener’s enjoyment may depend on their feelings about the oeuvre of the Levellers. But for the most part, the album sticks to a straightforward path. Drums thunder, melodies soar, arrangements surge, choruses exist in order to be bellowed along to en masse. You could wish for something a little less prosaic, but it’s hard to deny that Turner’s music ticks all the boxes it sets out to tick really efficiently. You hesitate to compare him to Bruce Springsteen – because, frankly, he wishes – but on Glorious You and Get Better he somehow nails Springsteen’s old trick of making music that can connect with a vast crowd without sounding unbearably bombastic.

Almost everything on the album has its emotional gauge set to “rousing”, up to and including the song speculating about the final moments of Christa McAuliffe, one of the astronauts aboard the doomed space shuttle Challenger. This is obviously a deeply unlikely subject on which to base a song designed to get people punching the air, but Silent Key weaves a weirdly compelling fantasy out of the theory that the Challenger’s crew survived the initial breakup of the spacecraft. The lyrics behind the anthemic chorus are haunting and ambiguous – not adjectives you’d apply to the rest of the album, which tends to deal in clunky inspirational slogans (“at this truth we have arrived – goddamn it’s great to be alive!”) and even clunkier symbolism, not least on the unpromisingly titled Mittens, which spends four-and-a-half minutes exploring the vacillations of romance through the metaphor of knitwear.

It’s a little frustrating, because there’s evidence that Turner can do better than that, not just on Silent Key, but also on the closing Song for Josh, a stark, heartbroken meditation on the suicide of Turner’s friend Josh Burdette. It’s lent extra emotional clout by the fact that the song was recorded live at the Washington DC club where Burdette worked, but it doesn’t need that context to make an impact. Perhaps the gaucheness on display is part of Turner’s vast appeal, which is predicated not on mystical star quality but ordinary-bloke charm and earnestness: he always sounds as if he means it, even when he’s bellowing lyrics that anyone else would find impossible to sing without arching an eyebrow. For all its flaws, Positive Songs for Negative People feels like the work of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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