Frank Turner has proven himself to be somewhat of a divisive and contradictory figure over the past few years. Given his Eton background, many find the rebel punk-folk songs hard to swallow. His triumphant performance at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony was followed by 2013's 'Tape Deck Heart', which seemed to lack the propulsive energy of his earlier work. Even for a break-up album, the self-deprecation and mostly dour atmosphere didn't sit well.
The folk troubadour's sixth studio release has been presented as his "defining statement" and it's true, the Wessex boy has delivered something truly wonderful. The polar opposite to 'Tape Deck Heart', 'Positive Songs For Negative People' is a joyous and gloriously defiant arena rock affair. Never before has Turner sounded so impassioned, so galvanised by the source material, exemplified no better than on the outrageously catchy 'Get Better'. The opening declaration: "I got me a shovel / And I'm digging a ditch / I'm going to fight for this four square feet of land / Like a mean old son of a bitch" has an air of Springsteen-like determination and resilience to it. The Boss' influence is felt elsewhere on the tremendous E Street rattle of 'The Next Storm', featuring a beautiful, cascading piano hook and a searing bridge.
'Mittens' is a foray into full on FM pop belter territory and it's a transition Turner makes exceedingly well. It's not something so unexpected though, 'Tape Deck Heart's 'The Way I Tend To Be' hinted at the eagerness to move in this direction. By contrast, the aptly named 'Out Of Breath' hinges on a fantastically ramshackle arrangement, only just surpassing the two minute mark. Lyrically, it's his most cohesive effort, but also his most repetitive and in places, his least potent. However, you do get the sense that for perhaps the first time, Turner's words are being driven by the music, whereas before, on 'Love, Ire And Song' and 'England Keep My Bones', it felt like the reverse was true. Just a theory. In truth, it's not much of complaint since everything else here is generally really good, 'Love Forty Down' and it's dodgy tennis metaphor aside.
On the rousing anthem 'Josephine', Turner brilliantly, compares himself to Napoelon and Beethoven, "I'm a defeated commander / I'm a half-deaf composer / I'm a strange name whispered in a dream". The record is also bookended by two exquisite acoustic laments, 'The Angel Islington' and live recording 'Song For Josh'. The latter is particularly affecting, a heart-wrenching dedication to a friend of Turner's who took his own life.
Despite the strength of the record as a whole, the highlight is still irrefutable. 'Silent Key' retells the tragic story of Christa McAuliffe, a victim of the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, taking on the idea the astronaut survived the initial explosion and transmitted the message "I'm alive, I'm alive, I'm alive" during the time it took to fall to earth. The result is an uplifting and life affirming epic, awakened by a colossal punk riff before Turner speaks of McAuliffe's "last desperate communiqué". Then, about midway through, the band drops out and guest singer Esme Patterson contributes a mesmeric vocal: "The darkness up above led me on like unrequited love / While all the things I need were down here in the deep blue sea" which is set against a set of slightly discordant but understated, clean guitar arpeggios. It's enough to send shivers down the spine.
This feels like something of an exorcism for the Hampshire-born singer and backed here again by the excellent Sleeping Souls, it's the sound of a man on exhilarating form. It's a significant upgrade from the patchy 'Tape Deck Heart', focused and majestic in execution. "We could get better, because we're not dead yet" screams an emphatic Turner as the final notes of 'Get Better' ring out, and it's this grit and conviction that makes 'Positive Songs For Negative People' such a powerful listen.
Words: Luke Winstanley
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