Warren Franklin – Your Heart Belongs to the Midwest

Warren Franklin coverAlthough it’s not particularly evident from the songs present on Your Heart Belongs to the Midwest, Warren Franklin appears to be a man who virtually lives on the road. Every description I’ve seen of this solo musician describes him as someone happiest when playing in a club, bedroom, basement, or sleeping in the back of a van on the way to his next show. This sort of dedication is laudable and speaks volumes of just how invested a musician is in what they write and create.

As best I can tell, the songs on this record coalesce around the theme suggested by the title, relating to an individual or individuals from Franklin’s home state of Illinois. Whether that comes in the form of lost friends who once offered guidance through life, as in ‘St. Peters’, or a failure to relate to someone and feeling lonely despite their best efforts, as in ‘You’ve Never Heard “My Aim Is True”‘, the songs concern a commonality of experience that defines and drives the lives of Franklin and those he loves.

The downside to that is that for someone whose connection to the Midwest mostly comes via music, it’s a little difficult to relate to a lot of these songs. Okay, there’s a fair bit of material that is quite universal – ‘Bro Downs Know No Bounds’ being a song about friendship, for example – but the better songs present are the ones that sound like actual stories rather than hazy recalls of shared moments and generic statements of brotherhood, solidarity or love. In fact, my favourite song here, ‘Let Me Down Easy’, succeeds for me because not only does it get specific, it also namedrops things with which I do feel a connection:

I was placing my sentimental value wrong
When we listened to the Murder City Devils on my cold wood floor
But don’t talk about common ground with me
It might pan out romantically

And:

Those around see me through
Wholeheartedly, I need them too
I still believe that if I listen to enough pop punk
That maybe I would feel the same as them

So much better that this manages to simultaneously articulate very specific personal moments and feelings, but through them establish a connection to anyone who has ever felt or experienced something even slightly similar. Far better that than the generalities of the eponymous ‘Your Heart Belongs to the Midwest’.

I realise that I’ve only really talked about theme and lyrics thus far. Musically, what’s on offer is fairly impressive. Most tracks are fairly short and built around on chord progressions and picks on electro-acoustic guitar with hand percussion. Piano and brass instruments also make varying appearances depending on the song. Opener ‘Bro Downs Know No Bounds’, for example, almost feels like a lite jazz number at moments thanks to the brass section and generally chilled pace, with the tambourine and passionate vocal style lending it that campfire singalong air. You’re unlikely to get bored with Franklin’s voice, either, as it does possess those qualities which lends itself to passionate road-living solo artists so beloved of punks: proficient with good range but peppered with minor imperfections and a tendency to break up when pushed hard.

Still, it’s a tricky record to turn around and recommend. This style of music is so dependent on feeling like you’re living in a shared moment unique to you, the artist and whoever else is listening, and when you’re struggling to make a connection with the shared moments presented in a song that is gonna fall down a little. Warren Franklin has been compared to early Against Me!; the latter were similar in many ways but it’s notable that Tom Gabel’s lyrics were often a fusion of the political and the personal. With Franklin’s songs there is the sense of rich personal experience, but there’s little grounding of it in a wider context – be that the grimy results of political expediency, the romantic belief in something better, or a well-fleshed sense of place. Given the title of the album, the absence of the latter presents something of a surprise.

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