Welcome, fair readers of MOSHERY, to my music column, “Albums I Would’ve Reviewed If I Had a Music Column When They Came Out.” This is where, each week, I’ll review an album that I would have reviewed if I had a music column when it came out—and I, for one, think it’s off to an excellent start.
This week, we’ll start our journey of (re)discovery in a little place I like to call “2013,” and the gold standard of folk, or punk, or punk-turned folk, or folk-infused-punk: Frank Turner’s Tape Deck Heart. During the intervening years between the album’s release and the literary present, Frank Turner has ascended to “Frank,” for me. Just “Frank.” First-name basis. A mantle reserved for a specific class of my ride-or-die crew, which includes Bruce (Springsteen), Tom (Brady), Ina (Garten).
And Frank (Turner). Among others.
That lofty honor is in large part due to Tape Deck Heart, which I sincerely believe is the coming of age album for the not-that-young, but not-yet-old.
Tape Deck Heart is the post-recession, rock’n’roll Catcher in the Rye, like if Holden Caufield was burdened by student loan, took a desk job, and had to hide tattoos from his coworkers: it’s the music for the holding pattern of maturity, the limbo of youth, the record equivalent of a well-intentioned 27-year-old that accidentally got drunk three times last week.
But it’s also possible I’m editorializing, after accidentally getting drunk three times last week.
As a whole, Tape Deck Heart is an altruistic investigation into certain flaws—Frank’s and our own—that borders on validation, like it’s sorta charming that we fuck up. These intrepid shortcomings are acknowledged, celebrated, and apologized for; they’re owned with lyrical freshness, and given the rock’n’roll alchemy that turns imperfection into anthem.
Frank opens with “Recovery,” maybe the most anthemy of all these anthems, the song that gives the album its heartbeat: it sets a line of demarcation for what’s about to come, acting as the emotional fulcrum for a collection of irreverent rockers, dynamic musicianship, and stories punctuated by self-awareness. The spirit of Take Deck Heart lives on “Recovery,” and the rest of the album seems to exist in context to its opener, with its combination of electrics, acoustics, and pounding snares laid over a boogie-woogie piano. Lyrically, the song weaves a love story of tangible excess that highlights Frank as a songwriter, a feature sometimes obscured by his welding of genres: Frank effortlessly brandishes wit and substance that matches the strength of the song’s groove, and from its very first line, “Recovery,” and the rest of the album, is whiskey potent: “Blacking in and out in a strange flat in East London/somebody I don’t really know just gave me something/to help settle me down, and stop me from always thinking about you.”
Blacking in and out in a strange flat in East London, somebody I don’t really know just gave me something to help settle me down, and stop me from always thinking about you.
Son of a bitch, that is good.
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Frank builds upon “Recovery” with “Losing Days,” where he gets at the reality of life after 25, a milestone he admits never expecting to reach. That’s followed by “The Way I Tend to Be,” a mandolin-driven modern folk song, crafted with the type of precision that makes other songwriters jealous. With its autobiographical honesty, “The Way I Tend To Be” is one of the album’s most lasting takeaways, melodically digging into shortcomings that sway the way of self-sabotage. Luckily, though, its contemplative chorus resolves some of these failings, with the help of the right woman, and the ability for someone else to save us from ourselves.
Unfortunately, that success is short lived.
The very next track, “Plain Sailing Weather,” pulls the proverbial rug out. It turns out we just fuck up, without a silver lining or hope for redemption, because Frank giveth, and Frank taketh away.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about Tape Deck Heart is its diversity, Frank’s ability, alongside the Sleeping Souls, to stray from a sound within individual songs, almost cartoonishly playing with genres in display of musical prowess: on “Four Simple Words,” a vaudeville piano and ragtime melody transforms into blistering oi punk, then back again; “Fisher King Blues” is a lyrical force of its own (“Parents don’t be too kind to your kids,/or how else will they grow up to be Louche Parisian sinners/or Nashville country singers,/singing about the terrible things their parents did?”) with ever-shifting moods. It starts as an airy, acoustic sing along, flirts with metal in its breakdown, and eventually lands on a revved up choral arrangement that belts its refrain—”All you broken boys and girls with your tattered flags unfurled,/fix yourself to fix the Fisher King.”
“Broken Piano” is the album’s most dynamic track, maybe the most dynamic song of Frank’s entire catalog, detailing the story of a found-piano that someone had torn some of the keys out of “with cruel care, not thoughtlessly, in such a way that one could only play minor melodies.” The song builds from the sparest of sounds to a harmonious wall led by pounding drums, in aid of a surreal emotional landscape unlike anything else found on the record.
It’s as stirring as the album gets, really, which is not to say Frank doesn’t twist the knife elsewhere: “Tell Tale Signs” and “Anymore” are painfully beautiful heart-wrenchers, as is “Polaroid Picture,” but that comes to some type of resolution on “Oh Brother,” which I take solace in because when Frank hurts, I hurt. That’s just how it is when you’re first name basis, ride-or-die crew.
“Oh Brother” goes onto an arena-filling rock song, with shades of Asbury Park, though its focus is platonic male love, not girls named Sandy.
Save for “Where Art Thou, Gene Simmons?”—a song counteracting the reputation for womanizing and casual sex in rock’n’roll—the fun of Tape Deck Heart is back loaded: “Tattoos” is an upbeat acoustic shuffle about the absurdity of covering skin in ink (“Some people have none and some have one that they’re ashamed of/Most people think that we’re fools/Some people don’t get it and some people don’t care/and some of us we have tattoos”), and “Time Machine” is thoughtful, electric punk set in in some type of high school history class daydream.
But if Tape Deck Heart has a thesis statement, it’s “We Shall Not Overcome,” where Frank finds the Fountain of Youth. (Suck it, Ponce de Leon).
The song is infectious and ageless and danceable, as catchy a rock song as can be found in the 2010’s, with a refrain that literally might have healing powers: “The bands I like, they don’t sell too many records/and the girls I like, they don’t kiss too many boys/the books I read will never be best-sellers/but c’mon fellas at least we made our choice.”
Lines like that are why Frank is the garage band rockstar: he embodies that irreverent, plucky edge, adheres to its spiritual tenets, makes listeners believe garages bands should—and could—rule the world again, simply through osmosis. In that way, he is basically a punk-version of Field of Dreams, which makes me James Earl Jones, I think.
But we didn’t really need to get this deep into Tape Deck Heart to prove that.
You don’t need to get past the opening line.
I mean the album fucking opens with, “Blacking in and out in a strange flat in East London, somebody I don’t really know just gave me something to help settle me down, and stop me from always thinking about you.”
Son of a bitch, that is good.
Billy is a feature writer and content workhorse, fluent in English. His career highlights include a Twitter favorite from Matt Nathanson, and sitting a few rows behind John Kerry’s hair at a Bruce Springsteen concert. Recently, Billy has played with the idea of getting a dog, but realized that might be too much responsibility. Check out more from Billy on Twitter and at billyrosenbeck.com.