LOUDER FEATURES: How Frank Turner's 'England Keep My Bones' remains poignant, 10 years on
Frank Turner has an apprehensive love of touring, contrasting his need for a sense of home. It’s a conflict that has been particularly on show this year as his Independent Venue Love live streams has given us a peek inside his home life with his wife, fellow musician Jess Guise, and his cat. He’s described between hastily-remembered songs – he prides himself on not forgetting the lyrics as often as his counterparts in the folk scene – that for as much as he values the time at home, a few weeks away from the road is enough to set him climbing up the walls, wanting to go out on tour again.
Likewise, it’s a contradiction which shows itself through his music, most notably on Turners fourth album 'England Keep My Bones'. For, as much as this is a record about “English national identity” and is patriotic in that sense, the title is taken from Shakespeare’s 'The Life and Death of King John', the full quote reading “England keep my bones. Heaven take my soul”. As you listen, you see how that is both appropriate and deeply ironic.
This is an album not just about nationality but about mortality and self-worth. Indeed, the very first thing the listener hears with ‘Eulogy’ is an joyous declaration that while “not everyone can be Freddie Mercury, everyone can raise a glass and sing” - stating that while not everyone will achieve ‘greatness’ we can all do our best to make our corner of the world better. The album sees Frank asking some introspective questions of himself and his culture, making the piece relatable no matter where you’re from. A patriotic record, if done wrong, could be alienating to a lot of people - especially someone like me, who’s from Wales. Not only did this record not alienate fans; it actually drew in people who hadn’t previously been a fan of folk rock.
‘One Foot Before the Other’ stands out as one of the most commanding moments – taking advantage of Frank’s potential to be an arena sized-artist, the piece is musically gigantic, the guitars and percussion throwing themselves at the listener like waves crashing on rocks in a storm. The piece describes how the belief that keeps Frank moving forward is not one of gods, or “ever turning circles hanging timeless in the sky”, but that his presence on earth will resonate and have an impact. He knows that everything is temporary, including the nation within the record's name.
‘Rivers’ illustrates this in beautiful detail, as our narrator muses on the ability of water to corrode and shape land, the ebb and flow of the serene guitar work aiding in the exploratory imaging of the song. “When I die I hope to be buried out in English seas so all that then remains of me will lap against these shores until England is no more” runs the concluding line, remarking on the temporality of all things, which takes on darker connotations as the record weaves its gentle course.
Although it's writer said in the run up to the album's release that making music for anyone other than yourself is the definition of “selling out”, that doesn’t mean that some of these stories can’t feel like your own. Many of the experiences which Frank names on the harmoniously composed ode to Winchester that is ‘Wessex Boy’ – hanging out and drinking with friends, listening to a busker, counting down the hours for the buses – are incredibly relatable, especially when seen through reminiscent and rose-tinted eyes.
Equally, what makes ‘I Still Believe’ so brilliant is the sense of community that the huge sing-along sections, and joyous instrumentation omits. It reminds you of being in a tiny live music venue, which, as per the lyricism, is a spiritual home for many people. If anyone would know that, it’s the person who devoted almost every Thursday night in lockdown to raising money for such places. In-keeping with the theme of family, on ‘If Ever I Stray’, Frank begs his loved ones to reprimand him or, more specifically, throw him in the sea, should he ever seem to be giving up and straying from the path he follows. That reassurance and the ability to be with loved ones in environments that make him feel safe – “Home and hearth and history”. That’s England to Frank Turner.
Tinged with the inherent optimism of this record though is a breath of sadness – Frank has been away from his home town for so long and returned to see that none of his friends still live there. One of the most anthemic moments on the record contains an apology to his loved ones with the line “most day’s it feels like I don’t deserve you”, even as he acknowledges that he needs them. Of course, ever-present on the record is that wanderlust – that sense that in order to satisfy the desire for his work to live on, he needs to leave behind everything he loves about his home country to chase the setting son and be shackled to the road once more. Make no mistake, he wants and needs to go – ‘Peggy Sang the Blues’ brings to life a dream Turner had – a common trick in his songwriting – of his grandmother telling him that it doesn’t matter where he comes from, but where he goes. I also love the way the line "as I drifted off’" evokes both images of sleep and the ocean.
‘I Am Disappeared’ illustrates that fear of not following through on dreams and ambitions reaching a high point. This is accompanied by a restless acoustic part and wandering piano line, both of which absolutely captivate the listener on the desperation at the heart of the song. Images of sleeping with a passport and restless unease with the passage of time should prove resonant with anyone who’s ever felt the need to escape, while the idea of inner conflict is again brought into view through the introduction of a second character, Frank’s then-partner, Amy. It’s telling that both are conscious of each other’s need to get away but can’t confess that, as for either to do so would mean potentially abandoning the life they have at home and their relationship. In a moment of serene sadness, our narrator choses to end the story with him driving away into the sunset without Amy.
Still, there’s a willingness to tear away the mask of innocence from the “embrace life” mantra. ‘Nights Become Days’ is a mournful folk ballad about addiction and death. Accompanied haunting strings and strained vocals, Frank warns his friends not to “sink”, painting the motif of rivers as a metaphor for time in a far darker way this time. More than any other moment on the record, this one shows Frank's fear that his friends might disappear or come to harm, paired with a realisation that how he treats his friends reflects on him as a person – a running idea in his music.
We see those fears justified by experience on ‘Redemption’. A true story about a time he failed in his devotion to his loved ones, with tender honesty and a sombre shame, Frank faces up to the time he left a former partner sitting alone at a restaurant while he was somewhere far away. Imagining a tally of mistakes and successes which make up a person, Frank pleads to be forgiven, the hushed refrains of “I don’t think I can do this” reminding us of our own vulnerabilities and mistakes.
Tellingly, it’s not a god that Turner tries to seek redemption from, nor does he try and justify his mistakes using his nationality or anything else for that matter. Rather, it’s his own friends, as well as his fans, that he seeks redemption from. One snapshot of how careful the writing on this album is the acapella song ‘English Curse’, which, through thoughtful consideration, is both an ode to English folklore and a candid acknowledgement of his country's uncomfortable history. This album uses the title ‘England Keep My Bones’ as a jumping off point to discuss ideas of friendship, a sense of place and ageing, but also pulls back the curtain, allowing us to see Turners anxieties in relation to being away from home, not being a proper partner, failing his friends.
It’s only respectful that by the end of the experience there’s not really a resolution, nor should there be. Instead, with 'Glory Halleluiah', the record ends by condemning the Church and religion in favour of an optimistic view about using the time we’ve got on earth to do right. This is another fantastic example of a song that, if done badly, could have been a disaster – as it stands the closer unites people at concerts, religious or non-religious, over its prevailing message about seeking comfort and compassion from each other. “If we accept that there’s an endgame and we haven’t got much time then in the here and now then we can try do things right. We’ll be our own salvation army and together we’ll believe in all the wondrous things that mere mortals can achieve!”. It’s a triumphant end to an emotional record that, far more than sounding quintessentially English, is simply about belonging and perseverance.
'England Keep My Bones' is available to stream here, and available to purchase at all major retailers.