The Second Three Years
, January 17th, 2012 05:47
In a little under three months, Frank Turner will play to twelve and a half thousand people at Wembley Arena. Billy Bragg will be supporting him. It'll appear neatly symbolic; the old guard of political songwriting handing over to….to what? To a new wave of socially-informed acoustic music? To a fresh-faced young man taking politics to arenas?
In many ways, Bragg will be passing the baton to someone exactly like him: a Home Counties liberal who holds dear an idyllicised vision of a past England. But while (for all his innumerable faults) Bragg once had what he considered to be genuine working class interests at heart, Turner seems possessed of an oddly violent reactionary streak. Bragg is honest about his liberalism. Turner, meanwhile, happily misappropriates Bakunin but baulks when faced with poverty riots at home. He represents an increasingly prevalent anthropological phenomenon: the liberal masquerading as a radical.
The Second Three Years is a collection of b-sides, 'rarities', and covers, the original tracks from which are mainly taken from the 2010 Rock & Roll EP and 2011's England Keep My Bones. The covers portion is entirely without merit, Turner having managed to extract every last atom of enjoyment from every single one of the songs he's chosen. Take That's 'The Greatest Day' becomes a three minute yelp, while a live rendition of 'Last Christmas' is less good than almost any version you're likely to hear in any Lucky Voice in any city centre on any given day of the year. Worst, though, is 'Thunder Road', the original of which has been clubbed to death with meticulously affected glottal stops, only to have its reanimated corpse paraded around some bedevilled home studio. So pallid it would bleed white.
Superfluous covers aside, though, the real meat of the problem lies in the first half of the record. Opener 'Sailor's Boots' sets the bar quite neatly, beginning with Turner's a capella longings for a simple life at sea. "If I had been born / Two hundred years ago / Well I would have been a sailor/ A-sailing I would go," he sings, before mourning the fact that he's a 21st Century pop star rather than a 19th Century Merchant Navy skivvy. It is the sort of trite poeticism that characterises the record, delivered with a shrug that says, "Oh this old thing? Yeah it's nothing, I was just playing around on my travel guitar and OH GOD PLEASE TELL ME HOW INSPIRING I AM."
The album is shot through with this self-conscious romanticising of the quotidian. If he isn't singing about sailing he's giving us tales of good ol' Vaudeville in 'Balthazar, Impresario' ("We aren't just artists / We are something more / We're entertainers." Yes, really.), or the quiet desperation of suburban drudgery in 'Mr Richards'. There is a constant sense of mourning for some lost Albion, Dickensian in its straightforwardness. Everything is either completely right or totally wrong. Teenage romance and punk rock is great; forgotten artisans are demi-gods; office work is shit. "What is this life really all about?" he has Mr. Richards muse before clearing his desk and setting off for a life on the road, as if in a Ladybird Kerouac. Turner thinks he is providing concise encapsulations of humanity, details from the great fresco of life. In reality his characters are thoroughly two-dimensional, entirely without complexity, and therefore utterly unbelievable.
But the lazy characters aren't the most worrying thing here. Rather, that accolade goes to a handful of snippy little throwaway lines – glimpses of what are clearly quite deeply held prejudices. In 'Balthazar', Turner's impresario laments that the stage is suffering because "the young these days are glued to TV screens." It's an odd observation from an artist who goes to great lengths to lampoon tabloid reactionaries, but one that chimes quite nicely with some of his previous utterances on the yoof. In Campfire Punkrock's 'Thatcher Fucked The Kids', for example, he refers to "the kids in our neighbourhood" as "a violent bunch of bastard little shits." Ken Clarke, of course, managed it in rather fewer syllables when he described London's poor as a "feral underclass."
And that is the real problem with The Second Three Years. It's not the songs (really, what were you expecting?), but rather Turner himself. He has tried very hard to cast himself as the lone wolf leftist, battling against stale ideologies. But in reality, his worldview seems as reductive as the very worst of the right. In a recent interview with a Phoenix newspaper he described rioters in Tottenham as "a bunch of fucking evil, violent people." On his own forum he said he is "bored with people talking about deprivation" as a cause of unrest. He claims progressive credentials, but seems content with immersing himself in gawkish approximations of an England that never existed. It's the classic reactionary mindset, one step removed from primitivism: it would all be fine if we could get back to the time when Britain was great – you know, when we were all sailors and the music hall was popular. Then we'd be alright.
There is nothing progressive here, either musically or politically. Just awkward couplets, poorly written stories, and the small-mindedness of the Home Counties liberal.