Frank Turner – Songbook
RIYL (for the non-greatest hits): Disc 1- 19; Disc 2- 2, 3, 7, 8
Release Date: 11/23/17
It’s not very often that a greatest hits album comes along that’s worth reviewing or even just talking about. I’d say that’s because greatest hits collections are, frankly, trash that barely qualifies as albums. They’re usually a haphazard collection of singles slapped together from the past few albums/years (or even across a whole career) plus a new, unreleased track or two, with little to no concern for track order, the context for the individual songs, or musical coherence. These are, in essence, a shitty mixtape someone would give a friend to help them see “what this band is all about.” However, good greatest hits albums are possible, and, for some artists, they are so good that they become the definitive album people need to listen to for that artist (Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits and CCR’s Chronicle are two personal favorites and exemplars of doing this very correctly). These albums transcend the inherent difficulties in creating a compilation by turning the thoughtless playlist into an actual album and artistic statement. Track order is given serious importance, instead of just throwing the tracks in chronological order (though that can be effective sometimes) or in some haphazard order. They tend to serve as a capstone to a particular branch of an artist’s career. They bring at least one track of something exciting and new. Most importantly, you should be able to give this greatest hits album to someone who’s never listened to the artist before and once they’re done with it, they should just be able to understand who that artist is and what they are about.
Frank Turner’s Songbook does all of this excellently, and then some. He’s said that his most recent album, Positive Songs for Negative People, felt like an appropriate coda to the first stage of his solo career, consisting of twelve years, six albums, and an aggressive punk-folk (but not quite folk-punk) sound. He put Songbook together as a way to tie these albums up and tie them together, and it does a fantastic job of that. The album itself comes in two parts: disc one, which encompasses the actual 18-track greatest hits plus one new track showcasing the new musical direction Turner is working on pursuing, and disc two, which is made up of 10 alternative versions, some acoustic versions, some complete re-recordings, of various songs.
Disc one performs perfectly as a stand-alone album if you listened to it without knowing any of Turner’s actual albums. It’s ideologically and musically coherent, and the order of the songs keeps the energy of the album flowing in an enjoyable way. Some of that coherence may come from the album being very heavy on tracks from Turner’s two most recent albums (10 of the 19 tracks are from Positive Songs or Tape Deck Heart, while early albums Sleep Is for the Weak and Poetry of the Deed only get one track each), but this is a reasonable thing to do because Turner’s more recent work is legitimately much better overall than his earliest stuff. To the listener who is familiar with Turner, this is a lineup of songs that are now set mainstays during his never-ending touring (as of tonight, by Turner’s count he’s officially played 2,126 shows since going solo in 2005) and songs that run the spectrum of Turner’s best emotional and topical writing: unending optimism of trying to be a better person in a shit world (“Photosynthesis,” “Get Better,” “The Next Storm”), crushing heartbreak (“Mittens”) and fiery anger (“Plain Sailing Weather”) from relationships gone wrong, faith in the power of music to heal all wounds (“Four Simple Words,” “I Still Believe”), and an unbridled enthusiasm for getting others involved with creating art (those last two again, and “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous”). It’s a wonderful lineup, and will fit any emotional need for the listener, whether you’re feeling good but want a little edge and hype, or if you’re feeling down and want a pick-me-up, or if you’re feeling sad and want someone to commiserate with you.
The Songbook Versions of songs included on disc two of this album are a fun addition. This side of the album included 10 alternate and/or acoustic takes on some of Turner’s favorite songs, six of which are included on the main greatest hits and four of which would have been worthy inclusions to the main list. Some of these are pretty straightforward reworks that aim to capture the energy and power of his live sets (“Photosynthesis” is a great example of this), but some of the songs do get true reimaginings that really, really work. “I Am Disappeared” gets a remake into what seems to be Turner’s new direction, with a voice box and synth creating the steady build of the song’s first half instead of an aggressive guitar and pounding bass drum in the original, ultimately giving the song an even dreamier, softer feel that really fits the lyrics. “Josephine” and “Glorious You” are both stripped down and slowed down, but Turner is a fantastic guitar player who is able to make that simplified approach as engaging and complex as the original versions, instead of simplifying the music as well. The new version of “The Way I Tend To Be” is my personal favorite, because it takes a song that’s very positive-sounding, with lots of cheery mandolin and high guitar chords, that’s ultimately a bittersweet look back on learning the meaning of true love from relationships past, strips all the cheer from it, and turns the truly sad subtest permeating the song into the text itself. It’s the same lyrics, but it’s become an almost entirely different song, just by changing what instruments are used and how some syllables are emphasized, that works as well on its own as the original does (Turner’s live, slowed-down version of “Live Fast, Die Old” also does this very well. I think he might just be very good at this whole songwriting and arranging thing). It takes a brave artist to completely rework some of his most successful songs, but the Songbook Versions do that willingly and excellently.
The new track is well worth talking about on its own, so let’s end with that. It definitely feels separate from the rest of the album, and has a noticeably new sound to it. The lyrics are a classic Frank Turner love song, but gone are the full-throttle guitars and punk overtones. Instead, the song is almost muted, with a quiet, restrained 80’s sound and measured, relaxed vocals. Hell, it even has a prominently featured synth, which I think is a first for Frank Turner. This is definitely a new direction for his music, but I’m intrigued by this track and am very excited to hear more of what he has cooking in this vein when he releases his next album in 2018.