MULTI-AWARD-WINNING MUSICIAN PIERCE TURNER GOES ELECTRIC ON
HIS POWERFUL NEW ALBUM TERRIBLE GOOD
Turner teams up with former Bowie guitarist Gerry Leonard on the latest musical endeavor
in his distinctive, much-praised career
An Irish-American musician in the truest, and most literal, sense, Pierce Turner lives half the year in his hometown of Wexford, Ireland, and the other half in his longtime adopted hometown of New York City. Both places are reflected in his songs, which frequently move between these two different worlds, linked through his keen observations and ruminations. His music expresses a duality too, sliding between the earthly and the ethereal, the miraculous and the mundane, the pure and profane. And it’s present in the title of his latest album, Terrible Good (due out 25 February on StorySound Records). Turner loves the ways the phrase’s meaning gets twisted by using “a negative out of context with the positive.”
Turner’s description of Terrible Good, however, is crystal clear. “It is my first real electric guitar album,” he says, adding “it’s an album with a New York edge.” Electric guitars definitely are central to Terrible Good, arising from his collaboration with guitarist/producer Gerry Leonard (David Bowie, Rufus Wainwright, Suzanne Vega). These fellow Irish expats (who met years ago when Leonard mixed sound at a club where Turner often played) are both fans of Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Television, and Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac. While this shared affinity might seep into a song on occasion, Turner shares that “I like to learn from the past, but not imitate it – to take it somewhere else while using every lesson learned.”
Turner wrote the songs for Terrible Good over a four-year period, in a process complicated by living and working in two different countries and during a pandemic. The songs taps into themes like mortality and movement, and thoughts about the past and reminders to enjoy the present and future. While Terrible Good displays a harder, grittier sound than Turner’s albums typically do, the music still contains choral touches, quiet interludes, and even playful moments.
Bookending Terrible Good are songs that jump back and forth between New York City and Wexford. In the opening number, “Where It Should Be,” Turner recalls his father walking to the hospital with his heart full of joie de vivre. While a shadow of death lingers over the song, there also are images of blue skies and hope, much like Leonard’s ambient-like guitar is balanced by beautiful strings provided by guest David Mansfield (Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue).
Terrible Good’s closing track, “Tommy and Timmy,” also ponders mortality but with a totally different mood. Turner wrote this joyous, rollicking tale about two great buddies of his, and sang it at Tommy’s memorial service. He describes “Tommy and Timmy” as a Gaelic hurling song, but his heartfelt affection makes it a song everyone can relate to.
“Set A Few Things Up,” “Australia,” and “Love of Angels” are particularly strong examples, in their own ways, of the album’s rock edge. While Rolling Stones-inspired riffs make “Love of Angels” a spirited song to dance to, Stones tunes don’t reference Chopin or Paul Bowles like this one does. “Australia,” meanwhile, ebbs and flows between a bouncy, New Wave-ish beat and a squall of electric guitars.
“Love Never Fails,” a song about resisting negativity, is the only tune Turner wrote on the piano, but it was transformed by Leonard’s orchestral guitar work (Turner marvels at how Leonard made his guitar sound like an oboe). Working with Leonard, Latin Grammy-winning engineer Hector Castillo, and the “classic rhythm section glue” – bassist Tony Shanahan (Patti Smith, Beck) and drummer Yuval Lion (David Byrne, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Chrissie Hynde) – inspired Turner to revisit two old songs of his: “Stephen” (aka “Stephen’s Preparing to Leave” from 1997’s Angelic Language) and “More” (from 2001’s 3 Minute World). Both songs benefit from their new, harder-edged arrangements, with the interplay between quiet and the louder sections (like Leonard’s ferocious solo in the middle of “More”) increasing the songs’ dynamics.
Terrible Good’s sole cover, “Rocket Man,” isn’t the well-known Taupin/John tune but an earlier, same-titled tune penned by Pearls Before Swine’s Tom Rapp. Turner’s history with “Rocket Man” goes back to his early days in NYC, when a would-be manager wanted his first band, Turner and Kirwan of Wexford (yes, that’s Larry Kirwan, later co-founder of Black 47) to record the song but they refused. “I did like the song though,” Turner admits. “The fact that it’s still a great song shows its power.”
Music has always been a constant presence in Turner’s life. His parents ran a record store in Wexford, a coastal city in southeastern Ireland. As a child, he sang in the church choir and played in a brass and reed band. During his teen years, Turner performed in various beat and folk groups, and, at 18, he had a short stint in the popular Irish showband, the Arrows. When he was 22, he left for New York City with his pal Kirwan. As Turner and Kirwan of Wexford, they played around the city during the 70s, eventually recording one album, 1977’s Absolutely and Completely, which inventively mixed folk music with prog rock. By the start of the 80s, the pair started a synth-y new wave dance group, Major Thinkers, whose several releases included a 1983 EP on Portrait Records.
In the mid-80s, Turner went off on his own. He composed music for modern dance and hung out in NYC’s downtown art scene, where he got to know composer Philip Glass. Glass wound up co-producing Turner’s first solo album, It’s A Long Way Across, which received a New York Music Awards Best Debut nomination, starting a seemingly endless series of accolades.
Turner’s Now Is Heaven, helmed by legendary producer John Simon (the Band, Leonard Cohen), was voted a top 5 album of the year in Ireland. Hot Press Magazine voted him Solo Performer of the Year and later Maverick of the Year. His album, 3 Minute World, ranked among Ireland’s top 100 records of all time and his song “Wicklow Hills” made the list of Ireland’s all-time top 25 songs. New York Magazine hailed Turner as “New York’s hidden gem” in their cover story on him. Turner was proclaimed “easily one of the most important Irish artists of the last twenty years” by The Irish Times’ Tony Clayton Lea, while The Sunday Times’ Liam Fay declared that he created “the finest body of work in contemporary Irish music, bar none.”
Over the years, Turner has worked on a broad range of projects. He has written for opera, scored movies, and composed a contemporary Mass. He collaborated with Philip Glass on the song “Yogi With A Broken Heart;” done a concept album about time and his last release, Vinegar Hill, was a set of reimagined traditional Irish folk songs. His genre-hopping, style-blending approach reflects Turner’s belief that if you do the same thing all the time you will always have the same result.
Being an artist who defies categorization, however, does have its downsides. With the release of Terrible Good, Turner has decided it was time to pigeonhole his music – at least, he says, so he can fill out his Spotify form. He is quick to clarify that “the pigeonhole was created by the music, not vice versa.” Let the world know: “I hereby divorce myself from the Singer-Songwriter category, and do join the shelf of Irish Rock!”