It’s been nearly two years since Frank Turner unleashed Poetry of the Deed on the world, by far the longest gap he’s had between albums. While he’s been plenty busy in the interim (touring with Social Distortion; releasing last year’s Rock and Roll EP, as well as a collaborative album with Jon Snodgrass; and appearing on a Bad Religion record, to name some of his more high-profile activities), listening to his latest offering, England Keep My Bones, it feels like he’s taken advantage of the extra time between releases and crafted an album that feels calculated in the best possible way.
The first noticeable thing listening to England Keep My Bones is how many more bells and whistles are attached. His songwriting style hasn't changed all that much, but his execution has. The full band behind Turner is utilized more than ever before. The album opens with the sound of strings and a horn section. These instruments, as well as keys (courtesy of Matt Nasir and special guest Franz Nicolay) play a more prominent role in Turner’s music than ever before. There’s also more evidence of studio wizardry (see the Queen-esque four-part vocal harmony on the Freddie Mercury namecheck in opener “Eulogy”).
Listeners who fell in love with the “dude with an acoustic guitar” format of Turner’s early work may be taken aback a bit by additional instrumentation at first, but it’s the lyrics that make his music so endearing, and he remains one of the best storytellers in music today, up there with the Weakerthans’ John K. Samson and the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. With “Peggy Sings the Blues” is a heartfelt tribute to his grandmother, with one of the catchiest choruses you’ll likely hear this year. He weaves tales of dreamers stuck in ruts with “I Am Disappeared” and “Redemption” (one of the album’s best tracks, and indeed one of the best of Turner’s career thus far).
First single “I Still Believe” has been floating around for the better part of a year, but it’s a strong enough track to justify inclusion, and it fits quite well with the flow of the album. It’s a full-blown love letter to rock and roll from a man who has always worn his influences on his sleeve. Freddie Mercury, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are all namechecked on England Keep My Bones at one point or another.
The real triumph of the record, however, is “Glory Hallelujah”. It’s an atheistic anthem that’s going to piss a lot of people off, but more than that, it’s a call to arms to help make the world a better place. The lyrics “I know you’re scared of dying man, and I am too. / But just pretending it’s not happening isn't going to see us through. / If we accept that there’s an endgame and we haven’t got much time / Then in the here and now we could try and do things right” are among the most moving Turner’s ever written.
England Keep My Bones is another great record from a songwriter who’s been remarkably consistent thus far and shows no signs of slowing down. The additional flourishes of instrumentation help the album stand out from his previous releases, but his sharp, biting lyrics remain intact. Like all great singer-songwriter albums, it will make you think, and more importantly—make you feel.