I was an angry young man.
You know that cliché of the chip-on-your-shoulder hothead who believes the world owes him something? That was me as a teenager. I raged against whatever machine I could find, certain that the world was holding me down. I don’t think I read The Catcher in the Rye until much later, but I lived up to the stereotype pretty well. When I wasn’t hating myself, I was hating a lot of other people.
And I listened to some pretty angry music. Oh, sure, I had the Beatles and glam metal to bring a smile, but the real stuff was Metallica and Megadeth and Pantera, bands with an axe to grind and throats to scream raw. Dave Mustaine was pissed off at the Parents Music Resource Center? Then dammit, so was I. Phil Anselmo threatened to get fucking hostile? I was right there with him, ready to take it out on the people who had made fun of me for years.
But then a funny thing happened. I grew up and I calmed down. I still love that angry music, but I don’t feel it anymore. These days I’m more into the complex metal of The Ocean and Between the Buried and Me. Yeah, I still buy every Megadeth album, and yeah, they’re still great. But just as my inner turmoil has quieted, so has my musical taste. I prefer beauty and grace to all the rage.
I think this is a fairly natural progression, and most people go through it just about the same way I did. So why do we remain surprised when our musicians turn out to take exactly the same emotional journey?
Take the prototypical angry young man, Elvis Costello. Every time he releases an album, it’s met by a chorus of fans who want him to return to his This Year’s Model style. Costello has nimbly danced across a dozen different musical genres since then, and while he can occasionally muster up some bile – see 2010’s marvelous National Ransom for some examples – he’s a much more rounded and interesting songwriter now. I’d rather listen to someone like him, who has grown and changed through the years, than someone like Anselmo, who remains in the same emotional shell.
English troubadour Frank Turner has always had an edge to his work. He began his career as the singer in a bona fide screamo band called Million Dead, and his first solo efforts – Sleep is for the Week and Love, Ire and Song – tried to infuse a punkier edge onto folksier tunes, to great effect. Turner’s a world-class shouter, and he writes fist-pumping songs of passion and loyalty. But lately, he’s been mellowing out a little more, writing from the perspective of an older and (sometimes) wiser man, and it’s been a joy to hear.
Turner’s fifth album, Tape Deck Heart, is his most mature and world-weary work. It also may be his best. It certainly digs deepest – songs like “Tell Tale Signs” and the great “Plain Sailing Weather” don’t just examine broken relationships, they pick at them like scabs, sopping up the blood and then picking some more. Where Turner used to sing about remaining forever young, now he writes songs like “Losing Days,” in which he admits to growing old and not knowing how to feel about it. “All these small ideas are suddenly commitments, as greatness slips on by,” he sings.
The tradeoff for all that youthful vigor is a newfound intricacy and power. Tape Deck Heart contains some of Turner’s deepest songs, particularly in its second half. He’s never quite captured the pain of fleeting moments the way he does on “Polaroid Picture,” and that’s because he now has a perspective on time flashing by. He’s still writing singalongs – “Let go of the little distractions, hold close to the ones that you love, because we won’t all be here this time next year, so while you can take a picture of us” – but they’re about impending death, about years passing like minutes.
Don’t despair, longtime fans. Turner still throws in a few crowd-pleasers, like the superb opener, “Recovery,” on which he rides waves of crashing guitars and crests them with a soaring melody. The deluxe edition appends four bonus tracks that sound like old-school Turner, and they’re fine. Oddly, though, it’s the audience-baiting rave-up “Four Simple Words” that falls flattest here. Those four words are “I want to dance,” and Turner uses them to frame a song about the thrill of live music. It’s earnest, but it’s a little goofy, particularly squeezed onto this record.
Once that song’s over, Tape Deck Heart takes flight on aging wings, and the results are tremendous. “The Fisher King Blues” is dark and intricate, “Anymore” is a delicate whisper with a sharp edge, and “Oh Brother” is a fantastic mini-epic about bonds of blood. The album ends with its saddest song, “Broken Piano.” Turner sings most of it over a buzzing drone (“So I sat down in my sadness beneath your window, and I played sad songs on the minor keys of a broken piano…”), but when it builds up and explodes, it’s marvelous. It puts a fine capper on Tape Deck Heart, an album that points to a bright future for Turner beyond the anger of youth.
If Turner’s patterning his career on anyone, it’s his fellow Englishman Billy Bragg. Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, Bragg was one pissed-off folksinger. He started his career playing a jagged electric guitar (with no other accompaniment) and slagging off the taxman and the bossman. His pro-union records like The Internationale and Workers Playtime are shit-stirring classics, and even as he’s added subtleties and brought together backing musicians to play with him, Bragg has remained delightfully incendiary.
But he’s 55 now, and he’s slowly been evolving into a much more reflective artist. That transformation reaches its apex on his new album, Tooth and Nail. Produced by the amazing Joe Henry, this album finds Bragg embracing his acoustic guitar and writing more happy, content songs than he ever has. And the end result is absolutely wonderful, a gentle stroll through a garden rather than a long run through a jungle. For most of his career, Bragg has wanted to shake you up, get you motivated to change the world. On Tooth and Nail, he just wants to serenade you, and he’s surprisingly good at it.
Bragg begins the album by announcing that he’s tired of being angry. “January Song” finds him “tightly wound in tension, feel just like a guitar string, waiting to reveal emotions, touch me and you’ll hear me sing.” He takes a political swipe, and it’s a good one: “Politician selling freedom, bumper sticker 50 cents, ask him what he wants to be free from, answer don’t make any sense.” But you can feel that his heart isn’t in it. In the second song, “No One Knows Nothing Anymore,” he rejects the very idea of thinking our way out of the mess we’re in. And then he spends the rest of the album looking for joy.
He often finds it, although this album has its share of well-drawn heartbreak too. “I Ain’t Got No Home” is the latest in a series of old Woody Guthrie lyrics that Bragg and musicians like him have set to music, and this one’s a stunner, a sad lament for a wandering worker. “Swallow My Pride” is a song of brokenness, beautifully written: “How can a man be strong, if he can’t even lift a telephone and say he’s wrong?” And “Goodbye Goodbye” is a final farewell from a friend: “The bells have all been rung, the songs have all been sing, this long river has run its course…”
The real surprise here is that Bragg doesn’t end the album with “Goodbye Goodbye.” No, that’s track eight, and before you reach the final grooves, he gives you the reality-of-love song “Chasing Rainbows,” the absolutely amazing song of fidelity “Your Name On My Tongue,” and the real ending, the hopeful “Tomorrow’s Going to Be a Better Day.” It’s a gorgeous final sentiment, set to loping acoustic guitars: “Don’t be disheartened, baby, don’t be fooled, take it from someone who knows, the glass is half full, tomorrow’s gonna be a better day…”
Yeah, there are embers of the old fire here, particularly on the rousing “There Will Be a Reckoning.” But for the most part, Tooth and Nail is the sound of a middle-aged Billy Bragg taking stock of his life and the world, and finding much to love in both. Bragg’s voice has weathered perfectly into a wizened tenor, and his songs have that lived-in feel that you just can’t fake. But the power of this record is that Bragg has not ossified – he’s evolved into a happier man, and it’s a joy to hear.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.