England Keep My Bones by Frank Turner album review

By Jared Ingham

Overnight success can take years and folk rocker Frank Turner’s current hit album England Keep My Bones, which climbed as high as number 12 in the UK album chart, shows that. Years of lonesome touring and three albums came first. To achieve his current modest success Turner has had to be a real grafter.

Since 2008, when Turner received some attention at Reading and Leeds, his career’s been in the ascent. Festival acclaim was followed by 6 Music and XFM airplay and, more importantly, attention from Radio 1 DJs, which led to a Live Lounge session for Sara Cox. At the same time he triggered the interest of American record company bosses and ended up touring there and many other places besides, continuing to build a loyal fan base. Following 2007 and 2008 album releases, a rockier sounding third album reached the top 40 in the UK in 2009 and led to yet more touring and more success, particularly with single “The Road”.

Said graft is one of the reasons to possibly feel well disposed towards Turner. Another is his willingness to be his own man and to chart a treacherous course through seriously uncool waters. English, folk and rock aren’t words that many people under the age of sixty want to hear in the same sentence. Yet the best song on England Keep My Bones is “English Curse”, improbably sung a cappella, about the Norman Conquest. This is Turner at his folksiest and, God knows how, he actually pulls it off very well.

England Keep My Bones is about as authentically English an album as it’s possible to get. Unlike PJ Harvey’s excellent Let England Shake, it doesn’t dwells on war and misery. Instead it’s optimistic and romantic. Turner is, gulp, actually proud to be English, isn’t afraid to show it and doesn’t feel the need to try and pretend he’s American. Fair play to him for all that. He isn’t Billy Bragg either, which is a bonus. Although Turner went to Eton and screams on his website that he’s “*NOT* a socialist”, which helpfully reduces the potential for confusion (his real name’s probably Francis Turner-Fortesque).

Unfortunately, the problem here is that no matter how well disposed we might be towards the man, England Keep My Bones just isn’t very good. It’s not terrible, mind. It’s just not going to set your pants on fire.

On the first song, “Eulogy”, Turner sings that “not everyone can be Freddie Mercury”. And that becomes apparent throughout. His singing lets him down. He has limited range and struggles to convey emotion. Too often he’s as flat as a fart. His voice sounds like it belongs to Chris Moyles’ moron mate ‘Comedy Dave’ (a grievous misnomer).

Worse though, too much of the songwriting fails to raise an eyebrow, despite flourishes with brass and electric guitar, and some other tricks. The majority just aren’t up to snuff and, God forbid, some sound like they could be Corrs covers. As interesting as the English theme and a willingness to go down a more unusual path on songs like “Eulogy”, “One Foot Before The Other” and “Glory Hallelujah” are, that’s something that can’t be overlooked.

As well as “English Curse” the other standout effort is “Rivers”. With some enjoyable picking as accompaniment Turner sentimentally recounts travels around the country. It works well and is worth a mention, but there are too few highlights like this.

Turner’s final words to us are “go ring that victory bell”, but he hasn’t scored a victory this time with England Keep My Bones. Given how hard he’s worked, his willingness to explore an interesting theme and take risks, and glimpses of some real talent on “English Curse” and “Rivers” that’s a pity. His live performances seem to go down well, so the best bet is probably going to catch him in concert to see if it’s possible to find what’s lost in translation, so to speak, in the recording studio.

Not that he will care too much about any criticism heading his way. As he sings on Eulogy, “On the day I die/ I’ll say: ‘At least I fucking tried.’” If he keeps on touring like he has over recent years there’s no doubt that’s something he’ll be able to say. Keep on grafting Frank.

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