This is not the Frank Turner who made his name lamenting the morning after a night of drinking.
There are some artists you return to repeatedly because they can be counted on to fit into your particular context. Maybe you throw on some Jon Hopkins for mellow self-reflection. He can be counted on for that. Maybe you spin some Meshuggah after a hard day at the office. Frank Turner is the acoustic hopeful guy. He and Matt Costa and to some extent Jack Johnson were everyone’s favorite go-to, easy-on-the-ears folk rock artists. They could be counted on for most of their careers to continue to do what they do. Even efforts to venture into new territory were usually firmly rooted in whatever the listening public were used to. Stay put, fellas — just keep doing what you do. The furthest Jack Johnson ever ventured from the base was a record full of children’s tracks for the Curious George movie soundtrack.
Frank Turner, on the other hand, has ended his run with Be More Kind. Sure, there’s some acoustic guitar in there but it’s more processed and over-produced than we’ve ever heard before. Fortunately for everyone involved, it works. He’s an excellent songwriter. The fact that Turner chose to express himself through his guitar suddenly seems incidental with the advent of Be More Kind. Where he could have lathered everything in a musical bombast — the kind of thing that happens when a small, quiet artist suddenly discovers a major label budget — he didn’t succumb.
“Don’t Worry”, the title track, begins dubiously, with nothing but his soft and unmistakable voice just as we remember it. There is a restrained guitar lick and a rather trite melody that meanders its way through understanding phrases such as “Life hurts/ Love will burn/ Don’t we wish it wasn’t that way.” But then there’s a brief moment of awakening in the latter third of the track where strings come in and lend it a melancholic and uncharacteristic depth. That’s the moment things get crazy. “1933” opens with an all-out punk rock anthem full of furious drums, growling bass and completely plugged-in electric riffage. Turner’s voice takes on a passionate rasp the likes of which he’s only hinted at in previous work. For the first time Frank Turner does those tattooed sleeves justice. It’s only track 2 and the album’s soaring with a serious momentum: “Don’t go mistaking your house burning down for the dawn.”
“Little Changes” and “Blackout” have both been released with videos now and each are indicative of the more poppy, experimental side of the record. Somewhat mundane on first listen, “Little Changes” unfolds in layers over time as you pay closer and closer attention to the quality of the lyricism. Ever the clever rhymer, Turner gives a lot to unpack which can make even the most banal peppy chord progression seem like something compelling — a story worth hearing.
“Be More Kind”, the title track, doubles down on the stark difference with his previous work and introduces a series of sampled guitar and drum loops. Fans will either love this or hate this but either way, it’s great, radio-friendly music. “Let’s Make America Great Again” similarly features a synth arpeggio, a noise-rock guitar drone through the chorus and a call-out to Americans to try to take back the idea of greatness from the racist hordes. This is not the Frank Turner who made his name lamenting the morning after a night of drinking. The aim is higher here.
Few artists succeed at making the transition between the familiar that fans have come to love and their own aspirations as musicians. On this record Frank Turner is taking full advantage of his fan base and, like a Trojan horse, he’s sneaking in through the gates confidently with something rich in instrumentation, keys, electric guitar and strings. He’s showing those fans something brand new and rock solid, matching every loud guitar chord with a passionate vocal rise. By the end of the experience you no longer think about Frank Turner with the limitations you might have placed upon him in the past.