By Andrew Barr (@weeandrewww)
The confessional singer-songwriter is perhaps one of the most tired clichés in music. You only have to look at the endless “douche with an acoustic guitar” parodies in music and in other aspects of culture to prove this. Even Father John Misty, who himself falls into this genre – as it has become – acknowledges this in some of the most hilariously self-deprecating moments of his latest record, Pure Comedy.
However, this doesn’t mean that the genre is becoming stale, or is failing to provide quality output. A quick look at the charts and the omnipresence of a particularly unimaginative acoustic-guitar-wielding male (not naming any names) would suggest otherwise, but the singer-songwriter album is alive and well. One of the finest examples of this in recent years is Frank Turner’s Tape Deck Heart, turning 4 years old in 2017.
Much of the genius on Tape Deck Heart is due to the fact that Turner isn’t afraid of complying with more than a few clichés of the singer-songwriter genre, but his songwriting is so strong that he avoids these pitfalls almost altogether to deliver a record which doesn’t seem to have aged a day in the 4 years since its release. Firstly, it must be noted that this record isn’t a stripped-back, solemn one-man-and-his-guitar affair. Turner is backed throughout by his band, The Sleeping Souls (who are named after a lyric from I Am Disappeared, from Turner’s previous album, England Keep My Bones) who provide guitar, mandolin, drums, bass, and keys to supplement his acoustic guitar both on his records and in his live shows.
Due to the contribution of The Sleeping Souls, the majority of Tape Deck Heart shows more sonic resemblance to indie rock records than singer-songwriter ones. However, it’s clear throughout that this is Turner’s record, and that, despite the obvious talent of his backing band, they are exactly that and are on the record to complement his songwriting. The aforementioned songwriting is what makes this record so memorable, even 4 years on. Opener Recovery is a throwback to Turner’s early records as it lyrically details his attempts to move on from a break-up but the pitfalls of trying to achieve this through partying and drinking. The track features struggles with both – quite troubling – matters and deals with them with witty lyricism (“I fumble for your figure in the darkness just to make it go away”) the song feels unbelievably fun, which has almost all to do with the guitar and mandolin harmony that carries the track.
One such singer-songwriter cliché that this record does fall into is that many of its tracks do detail love, and particularly a break-up, but Turner manages to deal with the subject matter from so many angles, from heartfelt to humorous, that he avoids falling into any traps associated with this type of record. While Recovery opened the record on a humorous note, third track The Way I Tend To Be is perhaps the most heartfelt track on the record. This track also features a mandolin but feels like the instrumentation serves as merely a bed for Turner’s stunning lyricism. As the title suggests, it serves as a confessional of his struggles with himself (which are implied more than spelled out which makes the track endlessly relatable to the listener) to a plea to an ex, in a way that suggests that Turner felt that person was the only person who could save him from his flaws or the way he tends to be.
The next track, Plain Sailing Weather, is a complete contrast from the mandolin-driven, poppy first 3 tracks. Plain Sailing Weather is a throwback to Turner’s early days in hardcore punk, and the mandolin is replaced by a meaty-sounding electric guitar. This track is also as lyrically direct as it is musically, and seems to serve as a snarling critique of love and romance as it is displayed in Hollywood films (the first verse opens with the lines “Amelie lied to me/ this was supposed to be easy”). This is a refreshing turn of pace on the record, which features Turner almost growling his vocals throughout.
A strength of this record is that the lyrics are not solely the break-up and become wider-reaching at around the halfway mark. Good & Gone is a wonderful contradiction – a cheery-sounding track which develops the theme of disillusion with depictions of romance in films (“So fuck you, Hollywood”). A track which Turner deserves special credit for including on a major-label record is Tell Tale Signs, in which he admits to self-harm in his teenage years, in an almost confessional manner. The song itself is great – and with the recent focus on (especially male) mental health issues, Turner’s willingness to admit this on record is commendable.
The latter half of this record adopts an almost schizophrenic attitude to subject matter and musical style. Four Simple Words and Polaroid Picture are both big rock songs which owe a lot to The Sleeping Souls, but the former’s lyrics describe attending a gig and capture that euphoria brilliantly, and the latter is a poignant song about Turner aging and losing contact with old friends. The Fisher King Blues is a standout, Bob Dylan–esque singer-songwriter tracks, with a subject focus so large it can only be described as “life”, and Turner’s lyrics on this track make him sound like observations of a battle-worn prophet.
The record ends on a brilliant double-punch. Oh Brother is a throwback to the fun, poppy nature of the album’s opening tracks, and serves as an ode to one of Turner’s oldest friends, adding friendship to the extensive list of topics that Turner has covered expertly on Tape Deck Heart. The track ends on a euphoric outro with the lyrics “time it will change us but don’t you forget, you are the only brother I’ve got”, ensuring it is a track that should be screamed between best friends after one too many.
The outro of the euphoric Oh Brother transitions wonderfully into the gloomy, weighty closer Broken Piano. This is the “moodiest” track on the record, and despite being far from the only “sad song” on the record, the instrumentation is by far the most downbeat, with the gloominess reminiscent of the atmosphere that Radiohead have almost trademarked. This track lyrically details both the exact moment of Turner’s break up and the legend of the Fisher King which Turner dealt with in the track of the same name. At 5 minutes and 30 seconds, it is the record’s longest track and ends on a haunting drum sound.
Tape Deck Heart, throughout its 12 tracks, is a wonderfully diverse record which sees Frank Turner showcase his lyrical talents on more topics than many singer-songwriters will cover in their careers. The instrumentation is just as eclectic, which The Sleeping Souls deserve great credit for, as they complement Turner’s vocal brilliantly throughout. While singer-songwriter records have been done almost to death, Tape Deck Heart shows that there remains obvious merit in this genre, as the record has not aged at all in 4 years, and will probably sound just as fresh in 4 more years. The only problem is, not every singer-songwriter is as good as Frank Turner.