Frank Turner: “Poetry of the Deed”
Folk music and punk rock may not sound very much alike, but their spiritual connection is undeniable. They are both, essentially, do-it-yourself idioms in which passion and sincerity are as highly valued– if not more so– than technical skill and sense of craft. Punk rock, after all, grew out of pub rock as a reaction to increased complexity and sophistication in rock and roll; it was all about returning the medium to its more visceral, primal roots, and actually being able to play one’s instruments or sing in an appealing manner were far less important than being able to make a loud, raucous noise. Folk, on the other hand, may not reward amateurism in quite the same way, but given that it’s music made to be passed around within a culture and shared between fathers and sons, a bit of homespun coarseness is hardly problematic.
I’m not sure if Frank Turner should be considered a punk, a folky, or both, but I am increasingly convinced that it doesn’t much matter. It’s not about the genre tag: It’s about the heart-on-sleeve emotion, the joyful noise, the breakdown of all barriers between performer and audience. Turner, a UK singer/songwriter who honed his chops in hardcore punk outfits before going solo, has a new album called Poetry of the Deed, and its second song– a rip-roaring, two-minute rocker called “Try This at Home”– could serve as a thesis statement for his entire aesthetic: It’s a celebration of the DIY model of music-making an a rallying cry for the audience to “pick up their guitars” and try to do Turner one better. He saves the song’s best punchline for the end: “There’s no such thing as rock stars, just people making music/ Some of them are just like us, and some of them are dicks.”
It’s that kind of spirit– a celebration of the everyman, a rejection of pretense, a carpe diem worldview– that informs Poetry of the Deed, both in its music and its lyrics. The title song itself is a challenge to take the teachings of Jack Kerouac one step further: Turner bids us put the book back on the shelf and let its spirit resonate in the way we live our lives day-to-day. “The Road” takes a familiar rock and roll trope and makes it work through the sheer force of Turner’s sincerity: It could either be a life-as-a-road metaphor, or a literal song about being a working musician.
Musically, Turner lives up to his DIY philosophy by wearing his influences proudly but not allowing his record collection to define him: Poetry of the Deed is a ragged combination of the Angry Young Men of the late 70s (particularly Elvis Costello and Graham Parker) with the populist folk of Billy Bragg. “Live Fast Die Old” rewrites an old punk cliche and transforms an old aesthetic into something very modern– it’s a pop punk anthem that could be a hit on any radio station that plays Green Day or All American Rejects. “Try This at Home,” meanwhile, is pure pub rock, a rousing singalong best enjoyed while hoisting a pint in the company of some good mates.
There is great depth to this material. Initially, it seems as though Turner’s charms lie in his rugged sincerity, in the way he swings from “Try This at Home” to the sweet, tender “Dan’s Song”– a disarmingly affecting tale of drinking beer in the park with your best friend, or in the way he writes both love songs and political protests with the same rough, off-the-cuff sensibility. But the songs add up to something stirring: This isn’t just a collection of great tunes, but a travelogue of ideas and experiences, an in-the-moment manifesto united not by its subject matter but by its philosophy and its aesthetic.
And that all makes the album’s great trick– and its true masterstroke– all the more disarming: For as much as Turner flies the “anyone can play rock and roll” flag, Poetry of the Deed is nothing if not skilled and assured, a record made to sound rough and rugged but actually revealing a strong undercurrent of craft. He’s a great songwriter and an incredible tunesmith, and he mixes punk and folk idioms until they’ve virtually melded together into something that bears no regard for genre distinctions. More than any of the icons whose music hs invokes, Turner fuses electric and acoustic rock, as much a matter of composition as it is mixing and production: Alex Newport is at the wheel and he gives the set just the right kind of polish, making sure that the acoustic guitars are just as prominent in the mix as the electric ones and keeping the proceedings based in singer-songwriterisms no matter how punkish things get. And there are some stellar production flourishes, most crucially the ringing pianos that flesh out the punchier, pub rock numbers.
But the album’s covert professionalism does nothing to mar its impact, or its implicit message. This is music driven by attitude, united by its aesthetic, drunk on melody and completely accessible, even inviting, to listeners of all stripes. In other words, it’s quintessentially rock and roll, no matter what other genre signifiers you want to attach. In fact, it’s so heartfelt and song-oriented that it’s almost old-fashioned, and yet its mindfulness of the hear and now saves it being a relic, and indeed makes it positively rousing.