When his forays into "classic liberalism" and "English national identity" caused a predictable online backlash around the release of 2011's England Keep My Bones, British singer-songwriter Frank Turner made the decision to largely shun politics in his music, opting instead to take inspiration from the deeply personal – resulting in 2013's break-up album Tape Deck Heart and 2015's Positive Songs For Negative People.
But the last couple of years have proven something of a turning point for Turner. Touring the US in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election gave him a front-row view of sort of far-right politics rampaging through the country, and he began to find the wildly divisive rhetoric being pedalled both in the US and UK, in the wake of Trump and Brexit, increasingly troubling. But the inspiration for latest album, Be More Kind, was first sparked by an unlikely source – online articles claiming alt-right thinking as the new punk rock. "That filled me with a mixture of incredulity and anger,” says Turner. “The idea that Breitbart or Steve Bannon think they have anything to do with punk rock makes me extremely angry.” The new album finds Turner refocusing his energies on various shades of modern political discourse and hoping to present a couple of answers among all the uncertainty.
While Be More Kind might present a shift back to the political, musically it's quite unlike anything Turner's done before. "I wanted to try and get out of my comfort zone and do something different," he says – and it's safe to say he's succeeded. The results are an album that includes blazing punk rock, sunny 80s pop and his best attempt at a proper club banger.
Here, Turner takes us through the album one song at a time.
BE MORE KIND - tracklisting
1. Don't Worry
3. Little Changes
4. Be More Kind
5. Make America Great Again
6. Going Nowhere
7. Brave Face
8. There She Is
9. 21st Century Survival Blues
11. Common Ground
12. The Lifeboat
13. Get It Right
"This is a song to set the scene for a new record, both musically and lyrically. I hesitate to call the album 'political' per se, because its central emotions are doubt and fear. But if I can be so bold as to suggest the beginnings of a solution, it would be to try and recognise the things we have in common, which currently starts with the fact that no one knows what the hell is going on. I'm also interested in simplicity in songwriting – Bill Withers has been a big influence of late – so that comes in here, too. And I wanted to work with new sounds and textures, proper gospel choirs and alternative approaches to percussion. Hopefully this sets the scene for the album as a whole."
"Stylistically, I wanted the album to be episodic, by which I mean, I wanted each song to follow its own path as far as it goes. So this probably isn't the 'punkest' record I've made, but this song is one of the most musically aggressive songs of my solo career, which I like. Lyrically, it's about disappointment and disgust with our political class as a whole; in particular, it's about the fact that we should treat any movement that promises national renewal with extreme suspicion. That shit tends not to end well, for anyone."
"Whilst I'm not supposed to pick favourites, this might be one of my favourite songs in my catalogue. It started out as a simple folk song about relationships, in particular drawing on my experiences with CBT therapy in the last couple of years – the idea of trying to make small, practical adjustments to your life, which can add up to something significant. Over time, the music grew in a really interesting, early 80s pop direction, and the metaphor of the lyric grew into something more expansive."
Be More Kind
"This was the first song I wrote for the album, and it pointed the way. What started as a musically simple idea, in the zone of John K Samson's solo work, grew, as I demo'd it on my laptop, into something much more ambitious, much more out of my comfort zone. By the time we were finishing the song, I was trying to balance Berlin-style techno loops with a full string arrangement by Matt Nasir. Lyrically, it draws on Clive James' poem Leçons Des Tenebres and Kurt Vonnegut, and theoretically ends up somewhere simple but powerful."
Make America Great Again
"Part of me is nervous about this song, and part of me is really enjoying being cheeky again, for the first time in a while. The sentiment gathered itself as we were on the road in the USA in August 2016, during the election campaign. I'm a huge fan of America, its people and its culture, and I find the current nativist outbreak pretty dispiriting – not least because they've so obviously misidentified what's 'great' about America, historically and conceptually. Musically I wanted something huge, brash and pop (with a guitar loop influenced by Beck's earlier work). There are three drum kits playing at the same time by the end of the song – lots of fun."
"This song took the most work of any on the record. We cut it three separate times over the course of recording. In the end, the final arrangement was heavily influenced by being on the road with Jason Isbell and hearing him play his latest material from Nashville Sound, live, with the amazing 400 Unit. I also reworked the lyrics a few times; I was always happy with the central metaphor, but the details needed tweaking. I like the idea of facing down the end of the world with your significant other, it's a sort of Thelma-and-Louise image, in a way."
There She Is
"I was on holiday with my partner in Italy a while back, and I woke up before her in a hotel room, and decided to try to capture the peace, the beauty of the moment, and my gratitude for it, before she awoke (I nearly succeeded – the end of the song still needed some work). I'd been listening to Ben E King's Stand By Me a lot at that time, and thinking about the power of that melody and arrangement; but then I'd also been thinking about stuff like Duran Duran and Soft Cell, and indeed Frightened Rabbit (again). So it came out somewhere in the middle of all that."
21st Century Survival Blues
"Some songs come quick, others slow. I got up one morning with an idea in my head, rushed down to the piano, and had most of this song together in an hour or so. Originally the vibe was a little more Portishead, trip-hop, but once Nigel started playing John Bonham-style drums, it acquired the drive it needed. Lyrically it was partly inspired by a very weird conversation I had on a plane once, with a businessman who'd spent all his wealth on a warehouse full of arms in New Hampshire, because, and I quote, "when the shit goes down, you can't eat gold". That struck me as pretty crazy; when the world ends, I'll care more about the people I love than anything else."
"I've been doing some casual DJing on the side over the last few years, in indie clubs, and it's a fun way to pass an evening and make a few extra bucks. But over the course of doing that, I've noticed that I didn't, as yet, have any songs in my catalogue that could stand up in a (non-indie) club. This song is, in part, an attempt to rectify that, working with four-on-the-floor kicks, arpeggiated synths and so on. The guitar line is a sort of Wire/Gang Of Four type affair. It's radically new territory for me, musically, and it's a lot of fun. The lyrics are about trying to relate to other people at moments of social collapse."
"The musical basics of this song have been hanging around for years, almost since the end of Million Dead – it's based on a lot of the augmented and suspended chords I was kind of obsessed with back then. The final arrangement goes a long way away from that though, drawing on stuff like DNTEL and Thom Yorke's The Eraser. Lyrically, it's a simple statement of intent, and I like the image of a bridge being rebuilt after a war."
"I've been championing the music of Will Varley for a few years now – I think he's the songwriter of his (my?) generation – so it's not surprising that he'd rub off on me here and there. The words to this song are delivered, in my head, by Will, it's a conscious nod to his voice and vision. I wanted to take the music away from there though, and it was fun finishing this off; I've used horns and strings and beats before, but never all at the same time."
Get It Right
"After all the complexity, experimentation and diversity of the record, I wanted to try to finish it off with something more organic. I wrote a song with an acoustic guitar, in the vein of Dylan (or more recently, Homeless Gospel Choir), and was going to leave it at that for the finale to the album. The arrangement naturally grew a little in the studio, but we still played it live in a room around some mics – the Sleeping Souls and I, playing as a band, and singing a song about decency, first principles and humility. A fitting conclusion."
Be More Kind is out on May 4 via Xtra Mile Recordings/Polydor Records. Catch Frank Turner live at one of the dates below:
01 May: Guildhall, Southampton, UK
02 May: Cliffs Pavilion, Southend, UK
04 May: O2 Academy, Leicester, UK
05 May: O2 Academy, Oxford, UK
08 May: City Hall, Hull, UK
09 May: UEA, Norwich, UK