Over the first ten years of his solo career, singer-songwriter Frank Turner recorded some fantastic material. His deeply personal songs touched on many subjects, from death, love, travel, friendship, lost weekends and politics. In short, in that time, he’s acted as a friend who’s been there, seen it all and is able to lend a lyrical tale of empathy whatever your personal situation. This time, though, he’s really not messing about: the commentary of ‘Be More Kind’ is a world away from the songs of youth, parties and camaraderie that peppered his early releases. It’s also musically far broader. A restless album, even; one that refuses to settle into any one style, sometimes with only Turner’s honest and personal lyrical concerns as an obvious link to the past. And while it isn’t a concept album, more than a few of its songs are connected to the universal themes of time and mortality.
‘Don’t Worry’ begins the album in understated style with a thoughtful lyric of support set against a sparse selection of chords, with stomps and claps used as percussion. Although the number has a familiar style, it still holds up well as Turner is a particularly fine voice and by the time the minimalist arrangement swells to include strings, it’s actually a lot better than first appears. Its pay off lines “I don’t know what I’m doing / No-one has a clue” are a sharp reminder that we all have off days, as well as showing Turner’s gift for never over-complicating a lyric. It has a simplistic appeal that really makes an impact after a few listens. In a complete change of pace, the rocky ‘1933’ opens with a garage rock stomp that at first echoes ‘Show Your Bones’ era Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the more upbeat material from Kolars, but once the whole band join with the vocals, guitar and drums it becomes so much more like a Frank Turner classic from a much earlier time. The rattling rhythms and huge chorus hark back to the days of ‘Poetry of The Deed’ and, as such, will be an instant fan favourite. Perhaps ‘Be More Kind’s most obvious throwback, it’s one of those numbers that – due to a strong arrangement and rousing vocal – eventually rises above sheer familiarity.
‘Little Changes’ switches the mood yet again, with Turner delving into pop, as his choppy guitar is complimented by light electronica, mandolin sounds and brassy parps (possibly from a keyboard). The clean musical backdrop is instantly uplifting and a wordless use of harmony proves catchy, but as always, it’s the lyric that’s the real draw, in this case with Frank lamenting letting someone down and being willing to do whatever it takes to make things right, even though he is “tongue tied and afraid”. The obvious message here is that the little changes we make in life eventually lead to bigger things. A hugely commercial song, it’s probably his most radio ready number since ‘The Way I Tend To Be’…and it’s both thought provoking and uplifting in equal measure. The title track is a reflective affair, dealing with mortality and how that ties in with how we only get one go at life and we should, indeed, spend it being more kind. A second use of strings is very welcome, adding a mournful warmth in places and the way staccatto elements used as a counter melody is particurly effective. Most unexpected, this comes across like a collaboration between Frank and the much missed Sharks Took The Rest. It’s a very smooth track, all things considered, but also quite lovely.
The subject of mortality rears up with a subtlety of a sledgehammer on ’21st Century Survival Blues’. Although the steady rhythm and spacious arrangement have an easy appeal, it’s the stark lyric that makes this number truly arresting. Here, Turner is the voice of concern regarding a pending nuclear disaster, taking stock of what’s important, making sure he’s where he needs to be when “the harsh winds blow” and “the sirens go off”. The upshot of a distressing tale is that he hopes that love will be enough. It’s hardly a new concept, but the fact we’re back in a world where lyricists and social commentators feel it’s important to address nuclear wars confirms we’ve headed straight back to 1984, with world leaders’ heads at Christ knows where. Far perkier – at least musically – ‘Blackout’ gives the whole band a workout on some sophisticated alt-pop driven by synths, moments of booming electronica and a huge chorus. It sounds more like The Killers than anything…and this is not so much a criticism as a big surprise. Though not necessarily a sound you’d previously associate with Frank, it’s still enjoyable and has the potential to expand his already big (and devoted) fanbase.
Another highlight, the slightly experimental ‘Common Ground’ is low-key, but there’s something in the way its selection of rattling, programmed drums sit against an unassuming arrangement that really draws in the listener. The acoustic guitars almost sound as if they could slide into jazz or flamenco at the outset, but as the number moves and builds in volume, its semi-electronic style draws more from retro pop. Musically, it has very little in common with any of Turner’s previous works, but the personal lyric dealing with inter-personal relations seems more than familiar: “Roll up your sleeves, let’s build a bridge” he opines in a non-pious manner, realising that life’s too short for grudges. In some ways, the mortality of the lyric could be seen as a more reflective sister piece to ‘Survival Blues’, but it never feels like a point is being laboured.
With a strong political bent, ‘Make America Great Again’ takes D****d T***p’s mantra and inverts it, suggesting that America can be made great again, but only by reversing everything the perma-tanned narcissist has put into place. A pointed lyric deserves a punchy tune and to make sure the message is more than clear, this is accompanied by mid-paced pop/rock with an accent on the snare drum. It’s one of those tracks that seems more appealing than some of ‘Be More Kind’ on first listen, but as time wears on, it takes a back seat to some of the subtler offerings. ‘Brave Face’, meanwhile, is fantastic. With a jangling guitar recalling 90s indie singles and a slightly folky undertone that’s occasionally reminiscent of The Wonder Stuff, it’s one of the album’s more rousing tracks, but beneath the upbeat arrangement there’s a nod to something much darker as Turner sings about putting on a brave face “to make it to the other side” and for his significant other to offer a kiss “as the world ends” and how they’ll “get through this together”… Occasionally, it sounds a bit like the more upbeat moments of Turner’s 2013 LP ‘Tape Deck Heart’, but it’s by no means a retread; introducing a gospel choir for the big finish is a master-stroke.
The album has already had some very pointed messages regarding mortality, but the acoustic number ‘The Lifeboat’ is definitely the most hard hitting. Turner, in typically poetic fashion, sings about how we should “save what [we] can” with an “old world behind us in flames”, lumps found in breasts, the smell of sickness and blood on breath and of a “dread deep down in [our] bones”. He takes this to the next level by reiterating “there are more important things in life than gold” adding yet another metaphor for the fragility of life. In this one line, he offers ‘Be More Kind’s most pointed and pivotal statement: it feels the whole album has been leading up to this. The track’s eventual addition of swelling strings provides a really emotive backdrop. Wonderful, just wonderful.
‘Be More Kind’ is Turner’s most varied album to date in that he’s not just content with mining his previous folk-punk moods and radio friendly singer-songwriter styles. In fact, it can’t be easily compared with any of the previous records – and this could actually be its greatest strength. With material ranging from acoustic to folk punk, to alt-pop and even a couple of arrangements that have more than a vague influence from the likes of Snow Patrol and The Killers, it’s very self-assured. There are tracks fans will love in a heartbeat while others will take more time to weave their spells, but overall, it’s an album that suggests maturity and shows Turner as an ever-inquisitive musical soul. By blending the already familiar with deeper beats, occasional electronica and strings, it’s a genuine mixed bag of interest.