The point where Frank Turner seemed on top of the world has long since passed, but that hasn’t stopped him giving it his damnedest. The commercial peak of 2014’s Tape Deck Heart may have heralded the descent, but the singer-songwriter has still been flexing his virtually unmatched work ethic for the last few years, through the fairly decent reception to Positive Songs For Negative People in 2016, and of course, continuing the streak of innumerable live shows. It’s reached a point where Turner’s folk-punk has been woven into the fabric of British rock music, from the success that comes from constant grind to the DIY ethos that has broken down so many walls for new bands looking to break out.
What’s more, Turner has tended to maintain a street-level composure through it all, which makes sense in the focus on social commentary on Be More Kind. After all, with roots that stem back to punk and hardcore, this should be pretty familiar territory, and could make for a welcome change from the more personal focus of his last handful of releases. And then you actually listen to it, and realise that what constitutes “social commentary” on Be More Kind is a loose string of political and social statements all cautiously linked to the central concept of people being kinder to one another. It really can be as mawkish as it sounds, and doubling down on tweet indie-folk influences doesn’t make things any better; realistically, it’s probably Turner’s weakest album, just for sheer volume of material that misses the mark.
It’s not even as if Turner’s aims here are completely unworkable either, given that traces of them do seem to seep through. It’s definitely softer in touch than his usual fare, more often than not serving as the encouraging hand on the shoulder for people to be nicer to one another rather than anything too forceful, a sense of unity outlined through the medium of arena-indie that’s been softened around the edges for maximum palatability. There are definitely moments where it’s done well too; both 1933 and Brave Face opt for Turner’s traditional method of powerful, mid-tempo hits, while There She Is is a more delicate example that fills the role of blustery indie-folk ballad well. Honestly, it’s not as if this increased focus on big, universal emotion is a bad one at all; both Try This At Home and I Still Believe have proven this to be the case for years now. Where those songs differ though, is in their energy and gutsy rollick, something that Be More Kind rarely seems to grab onto, and it’s a hurdle that Turner runs into time and time again. The sleek, synthetic pop-rock of Blackout and the twinkly indie-pop of Little Changes clearly want to occupy the usual oversized quota but just feel so flat and bland (or, in the case of the latter, an insufferably twee American Authors pastiche). The inertia is what really holds this album back; songs like Make America Great Again and 21st Century Survival Blues want to soar, but the sour tones and lack of any explosiveness drastically cap what they can achieve.
It’s not as though Turner helps himself in this department either, with his typical affability and fountain-of-charisma persona completely dried up for an uncomfortable level of distance. The bracing populism that often saw him as the unshakable bandleader has virtually be razed to the ground, and while the intent of a softer, quietly-spoken guide on the likes of the title track and Get It Right are commendable overall, they don’t have much spark of colour to them. It’s doubly true of the full-band cuts, now with Turner opting for a mid-level vocal limit that makes these songs feel so staid and bland, and with tracks like Don’t Worry or the aptly-titled Going Nowhere being so plodding and inelegant as it is, it doesn’t help in the slightest.
Even in the songwriting, the one area that’s always been Turner’s go-to for showing off his quick-wittedness and storytelling prowess, there are shocking amounts that fall flat here. Sound intent is definitely recognisable, and it’s executed in a way as to be effective enough; the idea of universal brotherhood and kindness does find itself worked in some quite interesting ways, like the outsider’s perspective on US politics and society on Make America Great Again, or the desire to move away from the hot-headed stubbornness that anonymity on the internet brings on Get It Right. It’s just a shame that, more often than not, the lack of any real immediacy or opportunities to imprint cripple any momentum that the writing can have. It’s almost consistently a bland and placid affair, rarely showing the firepower that Turner is more than capable of bringing, and instead feels more content to trundle along in second gear to predictably middling results.
It ultimately reaches a point where it feels as though Turner has genuinely ran out of ideas, and thus feels the need to default to middle-brow, agreeable tones to get anywhere at all. Even then, Be More Kind feels like one hell of a misstep, one that doesn’t accentuate the talents of anyone involved, and ends up squandering a perfectly decent concept on a shuffling, middle-of-the-road chore to get through. Turner’s earnestness does prevail in the end, to the point where the temptation to be slightly more charitable is there, but otherwise, there’s not a lot that it really gets done to much effect at all.
For fans of: Will Varley, Beans On Toast, Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Be More Kind’ by Frank Turner is out now on Xtra Mile Recordings.