Album Assignments: Tape Deck Heart

British singer-songwriter Frank Turner has a trick. He didn’t invent it, and he doesn’t use it all the time, but he employs it to great effect on his fifth album, Tape Deck Heart. Here’s what it is: he sings a song long enough to make you think you know it, then changes it completely, putting a whole new context around it and bringing new and surprising levels of meaning to the very same words and tune.

The most pronounced version of this happens on “Four Simple Words.” The song starts out folky, and gently opens up into a swaying, strumming chorus:

I want to dance, I want to dance
I want lust and love and a smattering of romance
But I’m no good and dancing, and yet I have to do something
Tonight I’m gonna play it straight, I’m gonna take my chance
I want to dance

It’s a sweet and catchy, setting the stage for a warm and happy singalong, but as soon as it ends, furious drums upend the song and suddenly Turner charges in behind a frantic tattoo of electric guitars, spitting rapid lyrics about “heading out to the punk rock show” in a style that makes him as likely to be on the stage of that show as in the audience. When the chorus comes back it’s in that punk style, and now instead of feeling winsome and wistful, it’s a fierce declaration of independence from cultural strictures.

But the song’s not done yet. After a few pogoing verse-chorus-verse fusillades (with the occasional solo, profanity, or Rocky Horror Picture Show reference), it slows way down to deliver the chorus again, this time cabaret style, with tinkling piano and a subtle choir, and then switches to rollicking music hall on “But I’m no good at dancing”, and then ramps back into punk for a final verse and an abrupt ending.

Album cover for "Tape Deck Heart"

The overall effect feels like taking the same sentiment to different phases of life, different internal and external communities, bringing them together with an insistence on joy and risk. The trick happens elsewhere too, though. “Broken Piano” finds him at first accompanied by a spooky drone, but otherwise a capella, lapsing occasionally into a grief-stricken Chris Martin falsetto. As the chorus arrives for the first time, the piano begins to assert itself, and the ominous drone increases in volume and coarseness. When the chorus comes back, it’s suddenly backed by huge, echoing drums, and a thick band of harmonizing Turners, leading up to sweeping, emotional power chords and an powerful climax.

“Plain Sailing Weather,” too, starts with its chorus in its simplest form, sung by Turner over basic acoustic guitar. Then the verse that follows it builds intensity so that when the chorus comes back, the band kicks in behind it and everything feels like it was meant to happen. “Tell Tale Signs” does a similar kind of build, albeit far more subtly.

Here’s the real trick, though. Those shifts don’t just happen within a song — they happen across the terrain of the album, too. Turner has described Tape Deck Heart as a “break-up album”, and that’s certainly apparent in songs like “Broken Piano”, “Plain Sailing Weather”, and “Tell Tale Signs”. Probably the most heartbreaking of them all is “Anymore.” No stylistic head-fakes in this one — it’s just pure acoustic guitar and mournful folk delivery of lines like “Darling, I can’t look you in the eyes now / And tell you if I’m sure that I love you anymore.” Turner frames “the romance and the running down of disconnected hearts” in stark terms that will surely resonate with anyone who’s ever been witness to the slow suffocating death of a love affair. It doesn’t get any bleaker than a repeated “I don’t love you anymore.”

But that’s not all there is to Tape Deck Heart. Amid the wreckage, there are brilliantly shining glimmers of hope. There’s “Oh Brother”, which beautifully encapsulates a close friendship on top of a deeply satisfying rock and roll riff. “The Way I Tend To Be” portrays a different kind of closeness, one that disrupts the singer’s self-destructive patterns with prompts to growth like “love is about all the changes you make and not just three small words.”

Best of all is the album’s opening track, “Recovery”. The song is unflinching in its depiction of a narrator “swallowed by the pain”, but every time the chorus comes in, the exultation of it is just undeniable, blowing through heartache even as it declares “It’s a long way up to recovery from here.” Turner’s band and his jubilant vocal recall the best moments of The Waterboys’ Big Music, with a similarly redemptive quality. At the other end of the album, the uplift that happens at the end of “Broken Piano” is similar to the breakthrough that happens in Coldplay’s “Amsterdam.” In each case, the pain gets surrounded by music so powerful that it lifts the singer into the skies, putting his earthbound heartache into a grander perspective. That’s how healing happens, and we’re lucky that Frank Turner has shared some of his with us.

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