I was a Frank Turner fan before being a Frank Turner fan was uncool. This is another way of saying that prior to Manchester’s Guardian outing the singer as a right-winger, I judged his thematic “England Keep My Bones” the best album of a young decade that no longer much cares for the long play.
Last week, the Guardian‘s Michael Hann posted excerpts from old interviews in which Turner opined that “socialism’s retarded,” decried the Treaty of Lisbon’s European Union as “the end of about 800 years of continuous parliamentary history,” and suggested that politicians should “concentrate on ways of minimising the impact on ordinary people’s lives and allow them to get on with their lives and not be bothered by the state.”
If you didn’t catch Olde-England-troubadour Turner’s so-fitting three-song set at the opening ceremonies of the London Olympic Games, the folk-punk phenomenon is perhaps best thought of as Billy Bragg with Bruce Springsteen’s talent. So once critics discovered that their darling shared Bragg’s full-throated folk style but not his hard-left politics, their love notes become “Dear Frank” letters.
The Guardian article’s author labeled Turner’s views “jaw-dropping rightwingness that used to get pop singers castigated in the music press,” an incitement other scribes read as marching orders. A Labour MP took to Twitter to title Turner a “twerp.” Music writer John Robb, a Turner fan, found himself “disappointed” and “struggling to understand.” He noted in an open letter to the Eton-educated Turner, “I somehow felt that you were like a sort of Joe Strummer, a sort of protest singer who transcended public school.”
Turner responded to the national controversy by denying affiliation with any political party or rigid ideology. The London School of Economics graduate humbly noted, “I just think the world works better when people are left alone to do what they want as much as possible.”
Patriotism isn’t politically correct, particularly among the citizens of the EU superstate. The title of Turner’s album, “England Keep My Bones” — consequently, not “Britain Keep My Bones” or “UK Keep My Bones” — subtly points to his politics. So does the album, a rollicking ode to the island Turner calls home. Closing with an overtly anti-God number — not surprising since atheism has replaced the C of E as the national religion — that may have helped mislead his leftist fans into thinking Turner one of their political cult, the album nevertheless strangely obsesses over sin, redemption, and the life after. And, oh yeah, it’s also about William the Conqueror, navigating the labyrinth of drunks on Winchester’s Jewry Street, and the pastoral past.
If England didn’t have a national anthem, Frank Turner would write a better one. In “Rivers,” he sings: “When I die I hope to be/buried out in the English sea/So that all that then remains of me/Will lap against these shores/Until England is no more.” In the energetic “One Foot Before the Other,” Turner imagines another fate for his corpse, with his ashes dumped into London’s reservoir to flow into his thirsty countrymen to ensure continuity, an imprint, eternal life.
Is Turner pondering his mortality or England’s?
Can one fault people mesmerized by style over substance for missing the substance here? Because they loved his songs they assumed he loved their politics. This comforting delusion, as confusing as it is common, imagines the same forces that prompt its sufferers to vote a certain way as responsible for talented strangers picking up a guitar, a paintbrush, or a pen. Art is indeed a Rorschach test. Interpretations tell us much about the admirer and little about the artist.
Like the fawning-turned-fuming critics, I hadn’t a clue of Turner’s politics until the controversy erupted. For political monomaniacs, no slate is blank. They hubristically infuse their aesthetic likes with their ideology. I don’t feel affirmed by discovering that a folk singer agrees with me on the foolishness of state funding for the arts or the dangers of allowing foreign bureaucrats to usurp local decisions. Why do those who like Turner’s music but not his politics feel so betrayed?
Frank Turner writes catchy songs with arresting lyrics. Must he also carry the right protest signs to win critical acclaim?