Frank Turner introduced himself to billions at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. A veteran of more than 1,000 sticky-floored gigs, he strummed “I Still Believe” (in “Jerry Lee and in Johnny and all the greats”) on that imitation Glastonbury Tor before the earth moved, industrially. Bliss was it on that evening to be alive, but to be the Olympic warm-up act was quite a promotion.
There was something of the yeoman about him then, and there is still. Something of the innocent, too. Turner has been vilified in certain quarters for his politics, after having the temerity to brandish an acoustic guitar and not be a revolutionary socialist. In an interview last week, he asserted himself as “a classic liberal” – with a better grasp of ideology than many of his detractors. A far larger scandal is his stolidly uninspired material.
Turner provides the seemingly unnecessary service of repackaging emo-kid angst in punk-troubadour clothes for a dad-rock audience. Yet this gig was heaving. It began with “Four Little Words”, from his current album, Tape Deck Heart, and the simplest of manifestos, “I want to dance”. The fans duly did. For all Turner’s hours on the road, though, the music was a weak approximation of Pogues-like gritty clamour, with nothing distinctive about the singer’s strident bark. His backing band, the steadfastly undreamy Sleeping Souls, toiled earnestly.
Tape Deck Heart finds Turner, at 31 (an advanced age he highlighted in his chat), grappling with too much drink, the scars of self-harm, and a clingy ex. By 31, John Lennon had done The Beatles and “God”, and Bob Dylan had gone for a rest. To take it down a level, Joe Strummer had delivered Combat Rock, and Ryan Adams had found that Love Is Hell. End of.
Only on the frustrated old romance of “Substitute” did Turner pass within a country mile of the wit and empathy of his friend and apparent champion, Billy Bragg. During the blandly jaunty “Glory Hallelujah”, from 2011 – “There is no God, so clap your hands together” – I thought I’d stumbled into an atheist’s answer to The Book of Mormon or that musical’s apocrypha.
The climax of the night, 2008’s lumpenly upbeat “Photosynthesis”, was arguably the most “political” statement made. Its key tenet – “And most of all I won’t grow up” – amounts to a sit-in for the superannuated adolescents in Turner’s party. Sticky floors suit him.