In 2016, Frank Turner was reading a collection of poetry by Clive James when one line stopped him in his tracks. It was from a poem titled Leçons Des Ténèbres: “I should have been more kind. It is my fate. To find this out, but find it out too late.”
Turner was in the middle of writing an esoteric concept record about women from the historical record who had been ignored, but this single line mapped out a new direction in his mind. “It devastated me the first time I read it,” says Turner. “A lot of older, wiser people tend to say things like that, that the things that come out in the wash at the end of a human life are the way you treated people around you, your kindness and consideration.”
At the time, Turner was on tour with his band The Sleeping Souls in the US just as the election was entering its unrelenting endgame, and the Hampshire-born singer-songwriter realised his seventh solo studio album needed to be a very different record to the one he originally had in mind. “The world decided to go collectively nuts in 2016 and after that it became increasingly difficult as a writer to ignore what was going on, and the changes that seemed to be taking place in the political and social culture of the West,” he says.
Turner is one of the UK’s most successful solo artists of the past decade. He has carved out a career as a hard-touring, punk-folk troubadour with a diehard fanbase drawn to a singer-songwriter who refuses to play the game and does things on his own terms. But in contrast to his career trajectory, Turner’s personal life has not been without its troubles. His last two records, 2013’s Tape Deck Heart and 2015’s Positive Songs For Negative People, dealt with the fallout from a break-up as the singer struggling to cover the cracks from broken relationships.
Now happily living with his girlfriend and their cat, he sets his sights to the bigger picture. Be More Kind bridges the personal and the political, the intimate and the universal. These are songs that could be whispered in your ear, or hollered along with from the middle of a sweaty festival crowd.
One of the driving ideas behind Be More Kind is understanding the person you’re fighting against. “You should at least be able to inhabit the mental universe of the people you disagree with,” he says. “I think Donald Trump is awful but I think if you wish to see Donald Trump not be elected for a second term then there is a need to figure out how to talk to Donald Trump supporters that is something else other than screaming at them.” Be More Kind is a political album, but more about the rules of the game than it is about a specific event. “To me, that’s the essence of liberalism,” says Turner, “because to me liberalism is about the rules of interaction more than it is about the content of that interaction.”
After a period spent looking back that culminated with last year’s career retrospective set Songbook, here Turner boldly recalibrates his trademark sound, the thematic line in the sand echoed by a new sonic beginning. There have been enough Frank Turner albums that sound how people expect Frank Turner albums to sound, he reasons, so it was time to try something new. “I wanted to try and get out of my comfort zone and do something different,” he says. “Positive Songs… was a bit of a retrenchment, I wanted to make a stripped-down punk-feeling live-sounding album where me and the band rehearsed the songs to within an inch of their lives and cut the album in nine days.” This time around, his approach was the polar opposite. Many of the songs were demoed on his laptop, with Turner incorporating his love of glitch electronica and Warp-style ambient albums and experimenting with drum loops and arpeggiator synths. These songs have the unmistakable melodic intricacy of Frank Turner, but with a dynamic gear change to the instrumentation.
The album was produced by Austin Jenkins and Joshua Block, formerly of psychedelic-rock Texans White Denim, at their Niles City Sound Studios in Fort Worth, Texas, recorded over two blocks in June and October. Some extra recording took place in London with Florence And The Machine and Halsey collaborator Charlie Hugall. “This is the longest I’ve ever worked on a record in my life,” says Turner. “It was creatively a very different experience from the previous record I made and that was by design. It was nice to be able to take time on things and have the opportunity to try a few different approaches to songs. At no point was I thinking about how the Sleeping Souls and I would play these songs live. It was more thinking, “what do these songs need?”” At some points during recording, only two members of the band would be called upon, at others, there would be 19 extra parts being laid down.
After reading James’ poem, the title track led the way. It’s a song that captures the spirit of adventure on the album. In an earlier incarnation, it was a stark folk song but here is blossoms into new, electronica-flecked territory. “It really lit the way sonically for the rest of the record,” says Turner, “that combination of what is expected of me and what I do usually and new elements.” At the other end of the process, stirring opener Don’t Worry was the last song written for the record. “I felt there was a bit of a conceptual gap,” he says. “There needed to be a mission statement track.” Turner had been listening to lots of Bill Withers, and you can hear the influence of Lean On Me in the song’s warm embrace.
From its title alone, you can tell the anthemic Make America Great Again is supposed to be provocative. “I’m old enough and calloused enough from my exposure to public attention to not really give a f*** about the backlash that song is going to generate,” says Turner. It’s an un-ironically pro-American song, he says. Turner has spent much of the last decade of his life on the road in the US and he loves the country. “What I find so depressing about the nativist populist movement is that they’ve mis-identified what is great about America.” But he still enjoys having a song that he knows will get some people’s backs up. Old punks die hard. “I think about The Clash and the Pistols and the punk bands I fell in love with and they didn’t shy away from controversial things,” he says. “Nowadays, as an individual I have to put my money down somewhere.”
Similarly, 1933 is a clattering, state-of-the-nation anthem inspired by articles Turner saw that suggested the alt-right was punk rock. “That filled me with a mixture of incredulity and anger,” says Turner. “The idea that Breitbart or Steve Bannon think they have anything to do with punk rock makes me extremely angry.” The pulsating rock groove of Blackout is inspired by the New York blackout riots in 1978, Turner intrigued by the idea of the machinery that powers a modern society breaking down. The summery guitar-pop of Little Changes, meanwhile, taps into the idea that if you want to achieve meaningful political and personal change, it’s the small transformations that accrue into a large change. “Somewhere in the record, there’s a convergence of the ideas of personal and political, which I think is quite strong and it’s a central theme,” he says.
Pockmarked throughout the album’s political themes and societal observations are some of the most personal songs of his career. Previous records have dealt with turmoil but here he sends missives from the middle of a cherished relationship. The Southern rock-style twang of Going Nowhere started as a love song and grew into a reflection on the modern world, and the widescreen Americana of There She Is was written whilst Turner was holidaying with his girlfriend in Italy. “We’d been driving and listening to a bunch of Motown songs,” he says. “When I was younger I was impressed by complexity but I’ve realised that a simple song can be more powerful.” Gospel-tinged rocker Brave Face, meanwhile, was inspired by a tour with Jason Isbell and is about the idea that “if you’ve got someone to lean on back-to-back, you can project to the world.”
21st Century Survival Blues was inspired by a conversation Turner had with an Australian businessman on a commuter flight, who told him that he’d spent all the money he made on weapons. “When I asked him why, he said it was cos “when the s*** goes down, you can’t eat gold.” The line prompted a lyric about survivalists preparing for the end of the world. The hypnotic Common Ground matches Turner’s love of TS Eliot’s writing (“I love his use of repetition of simple words, to the extent it almost becomes a chant”) to a sound that evokes Thom Yorke’s The Eraser, whilst The Lifeboat started life as finger-picked folk song before being retooled and ending up with a bombastic orchestral outro.
The album’s most organic moment comes at the end. Get It Right sounds like a drunken singalong at the conclusion of a great night, the sound of Turner and his band, in a room, playing a song in a way that couldn’t be tinkered with afterwards. It sums up the human warmth at the heart of Be More Kind, an album that’s an ambitious leap forward for one of the most important artists working today. Frank Turner is ready to begin a new chapter in his career. He’s done his looking back, now it’s time to march forwards.