Frank Turner’s early albums were filled with blustery folk-punk, his lyrics blunt and certain, perfect for his steadily building fist-pumping crowds that sang along with every word. He grabbed the mantle of Billy Bragg and Joe Strummer with his rousing songs, defiant punk poetry (“I won’t sit down / I won’t shut up / And most of all / I will not grow up”), and the sheer joy he brought to his role as hardcore-singer-turned-troubadour. By 2009’s Poetry Of The Deed, Turner had fully integrated The Sleeping Souls as a backing band, giving the songs a fuller sound without deviating from his path. Then bigger stages, major-label recording budgets, and crisper production arrived just as Turner turned his songwriting attention to lost love, self-doubt, even aging. 2013’s Tape Deck Heart floundered after a strong opening trio of songs, sounding tentative and subdued rather than jubilant and self-assured.
For his sixth album, Turner opted for a career-spanning effort, swinging from quiet solo acoustic songs to electrified punk, unafraid to go poppy at the right moments or offer a somber elegy to a departed friend. With Turner in peak songwriting form, Positive Songs For Negative People draws a clear line through his entire catalog. Working with producer Butch Walker in Nashville, Turner and The Sleeping Souls (Powell, Ben Lloyd on guitar and mandolin, Tarrant Anderson on bass, and Matt Nasir on piano) recorded the album in a nine-day burst, playing live together save vocals and minor overdubs. The result pushes Turner and his band back into more energetic territory after the careful, pristine sound of his previous effort.
As Turner connects with his folk roots on opener “The Angel Islington,” he offers an introduction to the album’s themes: renewal, inner strength, and optimism, sung with a resolve that steadies and focuses the entire album. Next in the thrilling “Get Better,” an ornery Turner sounds ready for battle with the world in full shout mode, on electric guitar for the first time, with Nigel Powell bashing away on the drums. With its ringing chords, “The Next Storm” shifts over to the pub-rock formula of Turner’s most buoyant songs from England Keep My Bones (“If Ever I Stray”) and Tape Deck Heart (“Recovery”).
Saturated in a sense of deep-seated determination, those first three songs punctuate the meaning behind the album title. Positive Songs For Negative People is about recognizing flaws but being unwilling to make peace with them, always striving for more from life. Having sung in the past that “rock ’n’ roll will save us all,” Turner takes that steadfast belief a step further on this album, with songs not about getting knocked down but about getting up, raising some hell, and taking it upon yourself to make life better.
That positive energy shines on second half songs like the breakneck “Out Of Breath” and the pop-punk chorus of “Josephine,” with its whoa-ohs shouted out as one massive hook. Turner turns to the subject of death on the album’s closing two songs. “Silent Key,” a tribute to Challenger teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe, features American singer Esmé Patterson (Turner had publicly called his label’s suggestion of featuring Taylor Swift “fucking rubbish”). The acoustic closing ballad “Song For Josh” is an elegy to Turner’s friend Josh Burdette, who managed Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club. Turner sounds vulnerable and broken on this live recording of this song, casting a new perspective on the album’s central theme: life is precious and fleeting and meant to be lived to the fullest.