It’s almost difficult to dislike an album as inherently positive as Be More Kind. In today’s draining political and cultural climates, Frank Turner not only believes that change is possible, but that it begins within each of us. In fact, if there’s an overarching criticism to be made about the album, it’s that these songs tend to veer into the brand of vague optimism that’s better employed lining the inside of Hallmark cards. But sometimes, even those messages can be refreshing to hear, and considering the relatively low energy on display, Turner’s heart, technical ability, and good intentions carry Be More Kind a considerable distance.
A far cry from the affirmative, anthemic rock of 2015’s Positive Songs For Negative People, Be More Kind sounds subdued and intimate, closest perhaps to the pop-folk of Tape Deck Heart. Its quality isn’t far off either; Turner reverts to the 70% killer, 30% filler formula that defined several of his early albums. This is a fine record, but one that is hurt by poor sequencing and an overall lack of bite. The boldest trick here – an attempt to rebrand its titular phrase by “making racists ashamed again” in “Make America Great Again” – is a well-intentioned swing and a miss that fails to make a slogan shrouded to white supremacy any more comfortable to sing along to.
To its credit, Be More Kind isn’t overtly political (and “1933,” its only other attempt to be, is a raw rock number that denounces fascism with fire and fury), but a release that seeks to intertwine the goals of personal and political betterment. Despite an A-side marked by largely impersonal lyrics, Turner still manages to craft remarkable moments, such as the gorgeous strings that underline the album’s title track and even its most cloying piece, single “Little Changes.” When he ends opening track “Don’t Worry” by singing, “I don’t know what I’m doing/No one has a clue/But you’ll figure it out/And I might too,” he sounds as sincere as ever. And why should we suspect otherwise? When an artist like Turner consistently churns out songs and albums that stay with us, it’s understood that there will be misses.
Fortunately, the back half of Be More Kind is substantially stronger than its first, starting with the resonant ballad and inevitable first dance, “There She Is.” Lead single “Blackout” showcases the album’s underutilized flirtation with electronic flourishes and pop hooks; not only is it the most interesting song here, but it’s likely the one that will convince underwhelmed listeners to allow the album time to sit with them and grow. Strangely enough, Be More Kind’s final sequence is its strongest, including the atmospheric shuffle of “Common Ground” and the daunting cautionary tale that is “The Lifeboat” before ending with the pleasant and perfectly representative “Get It Right.”
“Take a breath, try these for size/I don’t know, I change my mind/Between life and death/We’ll find the time to get it right,” Turner sings before leading a communal chant of ba-da-da’s. “Get It Right” is not a bad song, and Be More Kind is far from a bad album, but these are the kind of foggy, unspecific musings that fill the album’s most vapid moments. Have you seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Be More Kind is “nice” in the same way that Clementine interprets the word as a lack of anything more interesting. For some fans, this will be enough, but for most, Be More Kind’s stronger cuts will likely fill up space on a playlist as we patiently wait for Turner to either further evolve or get back to what he does best.