It would probably not surprise you that an album named England Keep My Bones would touch upon mortality, lineage, legacy and Englishness. The word “England” is in the title, so it’s pretty much a good advertisement for what you would expect to find in an album of that name. The album in question, the fourth from folk-punk artist Frank Turner, touches upon these themes on a national and personal level. The name itself is from the William Shakespeare play The Life and Death of King John, and it’s one of the bard’s boring history textbooks-in-a-play-form pieces of work, so perhaps not as well known as some of his earlier work.
But being named after a quote from one of the biggest names in English history is again another strong thematic link to what the album is inevitably about. Turner has always had an interest in history, with it appearing in several songs from his earlier albums. With England Keep My Bones, he’s tapped into it a lot more than before.
But with the concept of “history” in his mind, Turner took upon it to focus on lineage in several different aspects of the word. Whether it’s the lineage of the country he was born in, the county or even the town, there’s a sense that Turner is very much interested in how one’s hometown and surroundings can create identity. Particularly when put into context that Turner wrote this album when on the road, thousands of miles away from where he is singing about. In an interview with Spin magazine, he explained his thought process behind this: “I like music that has a sense of place to it, and I’m English through and through myself… I always loved how Springsteen writes about New Jersey and I wanted to do the same for myself.” With that in mind, England Keep My Bones takes that sense of place and identity but also allows Turner to muse on the impact he would have on future generations. With mortality being a key theme of the album, it does linger on the point that to create lineage and legacy, eventually, things die to create those legacies.
Making his mark is something that has been a key part of his writing process when it comes to developing his albums. After his first solo album, Sleep Is For The Week, was essentially a solo record that he toured on his own, follow-up Try This At Home was a more collaborative effort. As he found this balance with his third album Love Ire and Song, he began to form a permanent backing band. They forged their own identity, becoming known as The Sleeping Souls after a lyric from the song ‘I Am Disappeared’. Yet they’re playing his songs, not their songs.
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England Keep My Bones feels like it’s an attempt to carry this on. In interviews he’s stated that whilst he records with a band, it’s more a “dictatorship than a democracy”, which means that the album retains the feel that this is a Frank Turner album, not a Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls album. England Keep My Bones is an album Turner wants to make known is an album from him, and that the legacy being formed is his.
Turner deliberately creates this feeling by opening the album with a short song called ‘Eulogy’, highlighting the album is beginning with a piece usually read at the end of someone’s life. With his mission statement for the album being that when he goes, if he doesn’t amount to much, at least remember he attempted. ‘Peggy Sang The Blues’ carries on this idea, with his late grandmother visiting him to tell him that it’s okay to try things, as that’s what will create the impact you have. Yet the balance of knowing that you’ll be forgotten one day is still there. This history being played into the geography of England is a key part of the song ‘Rivers’, a motif that comes up again in another song later on.
Leaving the rivers behind, using the story of a relationship and Turner’s always-on-the-road lifestyle as a crux, the song ‘I Am Disappeared’ continues breathing life into England by referring to roads as the bloodstream of England, and the people who travel being the blood cells and electric signals of the nervous system. The nervous system being the road network. It’s a key metaphor that continues this idea of creating a character out of England that’s lifelike and breathing.
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This concept of memory and leaving a legacy echoes throughout this album. ‘One Foot Before The Other’ talks about how he plans to make himself the part of everyone by putting his ashes in the local drinking water. The song is heavier musically, but it helps amplify the quite visceral image that he creates by wanting to “remain” and “be remembered”.
If there’s a part of the album that doesn’t quite work, it’s the acapella song ‘England Curse’. Thematically its inclusion works to flesh out the scope of the album’s ideals of promoting the history and the sense of location that the album provides. But when it’s played throughout the album the sound of the track grinds the pacing to a halt. Its placement in the tracklisting feels deliberate, however; as it rests between ‘I Am Disappeared’ and ‘One Foot Before the Other’ it feels as if it disrupts the flow of the album.
The second half of the album continues to balance the duality of the mortality and lineage of England, with Turner going to his place of birth, Wessex, for the song ‘Wessex Boy’. Whilst earlier in the album the personification of England morphed it into its character, this time Turner brings it to his home. This is the feeling of writing about his hometown that he referred to in the earlier quote. It’s also fun to sing it with your own hometown when watching Turner live.
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The album ends with a song that has had some uncomfortable listens from some aspects of Turner’s fanbase. ‘Glory Hallelujah’ is Turner’s attempt to create an anthem for atheists, advocating a moral way of life that isn’t dictated by religion. He’s stated in the past that he’s not aiming the song to be mean spirited, and that the song points out that having faith can be positive at times. But he wanted a song that demonstrates his own beliefs. It ends the album with a rallying cry about how he views his life and how to live it based on his own beliefs.
England Keep My Bones works very well for the most part in encompassing these themes of mortality and the nature of England together to form an identity. For Turner himself, it nestles in the middle of his cult breakthrough Love Ire and Song and the #2 album Tape Deck Heart and thus is an album that signals an upward trajectory for him and can often get overlooked between those two albums. But on reflection, it’s a good cohesive piece of work that should stand up to his other albums.