I bought Frank Turner's England Keep My Bones the day it came out, hoping against hope—but with a good feeling—that it would be the rock record I was waiting for. At the risk of sounding like Jon Landau in 1974, I'd been feeling old, and wondering not so much if rock and roll had passed me by, but if I'd passed it by.
To be specific, I just turned 45; not exactly senior citizen territory, and a whole 18 years past the age when Landau felt over-the-hill walking into Harvard Square to see Bruce Springsteen. Still, something about 45 slapped me down in a way that 40 didn't, maybe because it's halfway between there and 50. Or maybe it was just the fact that summer was arriving and I was spending more time dancing with toddlers than dancing—much less fighting—in the streets. Our almost-nightly dance parties are awesome, and sometimes I even get to throw in a little Springsteen or James Brown among my five-year-old's requests. She's actually got damned good taste, and shouts for classic Michael Jackson and Joan Jett at least as often as she does for Justin Bieber, so I shouldn't complain. Her two-year-old brother plays a helluva air guitar, too.
But none of that's the same as being in a sweaty club, one that's a good twenty degrees hotter than the summer night outside, hearing a band that makes you feel like everything is still possible, like you can somehow escape all the shitty compromises that make up adult life. I don't get to many live shows these days, and it seemed like forever since a rock album shook me by the shoulders and said "This is what it's all about."
I've still not seen Frank Turner live, but when I first listened to England Keep My Bones on a late-night drive on a dark highway in rural Wisconsin (on the way home from a ballgame with my other son, a 22-year-old who's responsible for turning me on to Turner three years ago), it gave me the same thrill of a great club show, and it turned out to be exactly the rock record I was waiting for. And that's because—surprise—it reminded me that not all those compromises are shitty, and even the ones that are don't change who we are unless we let them.
Thematically, England Keep My Bones is like Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and The River all rolled into one, by which I mean it runs the gamut from wide-eyed romanticism to deep despair to some sense of consolation, though not necessarily in that order. By the time Turner name-checks Bruce Springsteen in "Redemption," the album's 11th song, it only makes explicit what's been implicit all along: ain't no such thing as freedom without consequence. Pete Townshend once wrote: "Did you ever wonder why music hurts / When someone plays it aloof of sin?" The best rock music does make you feel like anything is possible, but not by way of mere escapism. The last rock albums that grabbed me and wouldn't let go—the Hold Steady's Stay Positive, Gaslight Anthem's The '59 Sound, Against Me!'s New Wave, The Frames' Set List, Springsteen's Magic and The Rising, and before then maybe all the way back to Marah's Kids in Philly—did so because their moments of release and exaltation came among, and even right in the middle of, equally extreme moments of misfortune and burden.
"Redemption" alternates between a hopeful acoustic strumming and roiling, fatalistic piano as the song's narrator mulls over a relationship he sabotaged. He's defeated, The Boss's "pertinent question" of "is love really real" hangs over his head like a guillotine, and he ends the tune with the realization that each of us "can be redeemed with the courage with which he confesses," followed by a defeated "I don't think I can do this."It's all there in that one song—the hope and the hopelessness, the realization that if living with your sins can bring redemption, it still hurts like hell.
"Redemption" offers up the smallest tableau on the album, in that it's a simple tale of a man and a woman, but it's by no means the most personal. Even though the album has as its primary subject an entire country—anchored not only in its title but in the a capella "English Curse," which tells the tale of England's New Forest and the curse brought down by William the Conqueror upon it—the lion's share of its songs are about the intersection of personal and communal identity, and the tension between the joy of being grounded in community and place ("Rivers," "Wessex Boy," and "One Foot Before the Other") and the desperate need for individual freedom (most notably in "I Am Disappeared"). Indeed, the trilogy of "I Am Disappeared," "English Curse," and "One Foot Before the Other" provides the album's linchpin. "I Am Disappeared" begins with the narrator dreaming of "pioneers and pirate ships and Bob Dylan" and ends with him taking off at sunrise after thumbing a ride with Dylan driving—but the car takes them down the "rivers of tarmac like arteries across the country—that is, they've no illusions about escaping the land that gives them part of their identity." And "One Foot Before the Other," the song that most clearly reveals Turner's punk roots, has him fantasizing about his own post-mortem, with his ashes thrown into London's reservoirs and drunk down "seven million throats and into seven million veins."
"I remain...we remain" ends that song, forever tying the one to the many, the now to the forevermore, in an explosion of guitar and drum fury. But the rest of the album—before and after that trio—is positively joyous. And it's all thrilling, and—and this is fucking important—a whole lot of fun; Turner's smile in his videos is as infectious and irresistible as what he calls his "campfire punkrock" sound. I shared "I Still Believe"—the greatest testament to the power of rock and roll since...well, I can't remember—with friends on Facebook, and at least one of them said he couldn't stop playing it for days. "Peggy Sang the Blues" had a similar effect, and I'm thankful my friend didn't send the bill to me when she immediately went out and bought Frank Turner's entire catalog.
Then there's "Glory Hallelujah," a rejection of religion miles more convincing than anything Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins ever wrote, and a damned sight more fun. A true atheist doesn't proselytize, so says a good friend of mine, but if one were looking to create converts, "Glory Hallelujah" is simply the best argument I've ever heard, kick ass rock and roll in excelsis.
You've got to hear it for yourself, all of it. I haven't been able to take it out of heavy rotation for a month, and I don't foresee it falling out of favor any time soon. And dammit, that's what I needed—an album that would be the soundtrack to my life for a while. I don't feel young again, but feelin' old don't feel so bad, neither.