Frank Turner’s Be More Kind manages to be both the most optimistic and pessimistic album so far in 2018. It’s at once comforting and unsettling, hopeful and desperate, which I suppose is no surprise from a guy whose last studio album was called Positive Songs for Negative People.
Most of the optimism on Be More Kind comes in the form of the personal—the simple admonition of the title track, the counsel in “Don’t Worry” to “spend more time with the do’s than with the don’ts,” and the recurring themes of meeting in the middle and finding common ground. Those lyrics might seem like eye-rolling bromides on the page, but with Turner and his band the Sleeping Souls behind them, they’re rousing calls to action.
It’s not much of a leap to get here from “we can always get better, because we’re not dead yet” from 2015’s “Get Better.” Still, there’s a whole lot more at stake now than in 2015, and Turner knows it. The singer angered some of his fans a few years back with an interviewin which he slammed the left and proclaimed himself a libertarian; that felt like it was in direct opposition to the communal spirit of his songs and his shows. But he seems to have changed his tune on Be More Kind,and admits as much in “Blackout:”
I was in my comfort one
I was singing selfish songs
I’ve been taking for granted everyone understood how easy trouble comes
But it’s not enough anymore
We can’t just turn around and close the door on the world
It’s asking uneasy questions
We should be asking ourselves uneasy questions
“Blackout” is musically unlike anything Turner’s ever done before, too, embracing 80s dance-pop with a funky bass line, synth washes, and chikka-chikka Edge-style guitar. And while the album contains a few examples of singalong “campfire punk” (as Turner once called his sound), “Little Changes” is of-the-moment, sing-song pop, and “Common Ground” is an acoustic shuffle that builds to an unresolved bridge, with that lack of musical resolution belying the call to “meet on the bridge and forgive.”
An unrepentant leftist myself, I’m trying not to make too much out of the fact that Turner paraphrases Karl Marx in the album’s hardest-rocking song, “1933,” singing “The first time it was a tragedy/ The second time it’s a farce.” But Be More Kindcertainly acknowledges that the biggest danger we face is from the right, not the left. Turner never utters the words “Brexit” or “Trump,” but he doesn’t need to: “The world outside is burning with a brand-new light/ But it isn’t one that makes me feel warm/ Don’t go mistaking your house burning down for the dawn.”
Of course, when you have a song called “Make America Great Again,” you’ve pretty much called out Trump by name anyway. In this ironic, self-deprecating, inspirational, and damn-near danceable anthem, the Englishman acknowledges his outsider status it in the first line, but then reminds Americans that “you fought our king to be independent.” How does Turner propose to MAGA? “By making racists ashamed again/ Let’s make compassion a fashion again.” It’s simplistic, sure, but it cuts to the quick regarding the license that white supremacists feel to go public since the con man won the White House. The song’s soaring chorus—“Ellis Island take me in/ Everyone can start again/ In the shining city on the hill/ Where nobody can be illegal”—is as clear a re-statement of the United States’ promise as any you’re likely to hear in pop music.
So that’s the optimism, the protest songs to get us fired up to wake up and fight another day. Then there’s the pessimism of “21stCentury Survival Blues,” where Turner describes a world without hope and envisions an apocalyptic scenario where all that’s left is human connection: “I’ve started making lists of the essential things/ For when the storms bring what they bring,” he sings, before the band falls away and he howls “I just need you.” There’s nothing romantic about it; it’s all desperation and fear.
Then there’s “The Lifeboat,” which manages to embrace both despair and hope. Against a drumbeat and a minor-key acoustic guitar, it begins with language that sounds like something out of Revelations: “There’s a stumble now in our step/ There’s blood in the phlegm, there’s a lump in the breast/ There’s a smell of sickness on our breath.” All is lost, but then a string quartet moans and takes the song from minor to major, and the clouds lift: “There is hope now in the wind/ In the millions who are marching demanding we be kind/ And the new lives the lifeboats might find.”
And then the album ends with its quietest song, “Get it Right,” a simple acoustic plea for change not political or even social, but personal: for the strength and wisdom to change. The song sounds hopeful enough, but then it ends on another unresolved note—tentative and unsure, with a simple declaration: “I’ve changed my mind.”
In its own way, that’s the most hopeful statement of all.