If English singer-songwriter Frank Turner’s heart is a tape deck, it’s a severely used one; it warps the tape in your favorite cassette, and everything sounds scratchy and worn, cloaked in a layer of tell-tale hiss. It doesn’t matter, though, because it’s got one of your favorite songs lurking deep within its recesses, and if Guided By Voices have taught us anything, it’s that a great song is a great song, period.
Frank Turner’s new album, on the other hand, doesn’t sound much like a tape deck at all; Tape Deck Heart is, as many reviews are quick to point out, Turner’s most accessible record to date, and his most produced. Turner’s acoustic guitar is a crisp, bold instrument, as is his voice, a throaty, miraculously expressive tool that can coo in fluid falsetto (“Broken Piano”) or burst forth in a clutch of full-bore emotion (“Recovery”); the latter is more the order of the day throughout Heart, of course, as Turner embraces emotion without surrendering to mawkish sentiment. Which is what, in part, makes his songs so potent; this guy doesn’t so much glide up the scales as much as he storms the next note’s gate and punches the guard in the balls.
It’s that passion that ultimately makes Tape Deck Heart so worthwhile. Singer-songwriters often flex mastery of their craft without ever hitting a sweet spot, as if their intellect and linguistic mastery obscures their lack of heart; not so for Turner, a remarkable lyricist who projects smarts without being a slave to vocabulary, who taps into emotion without wallowing, who’s as comfortable finger-picking a bruised ballad about Gene Simmons as he is slinging his acoustic guitar around his neck and throttling it with aggressive major chords. Musically, Tape Deck Heart is as much The Midnight Organ Fright as it is Recovering the Satellites, a breathless trip through nu-Americana colored with acoustic guitar, saloon piano, and background vocals, emotional viscera funneled into cathartic, shouting choruses.
But more importantly, Tape Deck Heart never sounds anything less than vital. Turner weaves his struggle with addiction into barn-storming stadium rock with opener “Recovery” — which, it’s still early for “song of the year” polls, but Turner’s certainly on the ballot for this one. He’s self-deprecating on the salty, profane “Plain Sailing Weather”, and defiant on the rambling, one-take “Tattoos”. (The latter’s a track from the Deluxe Edition, which, not for nothing, dramatically improves the album by adding four standouts to an already-killer record; it speaks to Turner’s creative muse that even his throwaways are gold, and besides “We Shall Not Overcome” is required listening.) Each song taps into a different mood, and Turner’s creative way with language keeps the proceedings exciting. To say nothing of his compositions, which build quickly to catharsis and take off from there.
Turner’s earlier, rawer, England-centric works may have earned him the most fans, but Tape Deck Heart finds Turner poised to swing a few new ones over; it’s an indelible, immediate record that sands down the musical edges without sacrificing Turner’s bellowing vocals or emotional honesty. It’s a ringer, in other words, and a standout in what’s shaping up to be a terrific year for music.