Originally planned to be his seventh release until the 2016 political climate caused a re-ordering, Frank Turner’s 8th effort, ‘No Man’s Land’ an album about women from history has seen plenty of discussion prior to its release – but much of it concerning his audacity in making it at all.
Turner is certainly no stranger to controversy – see the Mongol Horde name debate for a recent example – and was well aware the album would stir feathers , addressing the concerns in a blog post, emphasizing the work of female producers on the record, explaining his thought process behind each track in his podcast – even inviting another singer who had once penned a track about Rosetta Tharpe to perform on his platform.
Despite the pre-emptive damage control, the reaction has been, well, depressingly predictable. Talk of appropriation, obligatory quips about mansplaining, annoyance that the project sees Turner takes centre stage (on his own album) The ongoing debate as to whether a man holds the right to create art about women – important but so, so obnoxiously debated. The words ‘Tory’ and ‘Eton’ being wearily thrown around Twitter as slurs by folk who really need to read up on the meaning of left/right wing – making one suspect that people’s real issue isn’t ‘Ugh. A man is writing songs about women’, but more ‘Ugh. Frank Turner is writing songs about anything.’
But what about, y’know, the actual album? Press surrounding the record has been so dominated over whether or not it has the right to exist that the tracks themselves have taken something of a backseat.
Since addressing personal demons on Recovery and resilient inertia on Positive Songs, Turner – as he approaches the 15 year benchmark as a solo artist – seems determined to step firmly out of his comfort zone. We saw the first signs of this with last years uneven ‘Be More Kind’ – a response to the changing world which saw a return to the political, plus love ballads with strings, synths, ukuleles, all wrapped in a vague concept of ‘lets be nicer to each other’.
Now he’s thrown caution to the wind and done a more direct concept album – twelve tracks about inspirational, intriguing and largely unremembered women from history (plus one about his mum).
It’s a bold step away from the heavily autobiographical songwriting that defined Turners first seven albums, a move towards a narrative style which has only been seen in glimpses – the outstanding ‘Balthasar, Impresario’ from 2011’s England Keep My Bones being the best example. And yet, given Turners background as a self-confessed history geek (and LSE European History scholar), the concept seems a natural progression.
No Man’s Land is more than just a bold shift in songwriting style though, proved best by the bluegrass-y ‘The Death of Dora Hand’, which, despite some clunky wording, contains some of Turner’s most impressive guitar work yet. ‘Nica’, musing on bebop pioneerPannonica de Koenigswarter sees him incorporate some jazz (which given the subject, it sort of had to) while ‘Silent Key’ re-works his previously released Christa McAulife tribute from 2015 to a more melodic gravitas.
No Mans Land alternates between Balthasars first person narrative and a more detached, descriptive style – in fact, one could divide the album roughly into two – the lively, general interest tracks which describe, and the more emotive explorations which speculate.
Firmly in the first category is ‘Sister Rosetta’, penned in 2016 which became the albums lead of sorts, already attracting attention as a live favourite and for the fact that, yes, the riff kind of sounds like ‘Stacy’s Mom’. It’s not a particularly deep song, lyrically, but it functions as a lively and sincere nod of reverence to an oft-forgotten player in the evolution of rock’n’roll – and if it revitalises public interest in Ms Tharpe’s legacy, all the better.
‘The Lioness’, a pop-punky ode to Egyptian Feminist Union founder Huda Sha’awari follows the same format – using Sha’awari’s lesser-known story as the launching pad for an anthem of defiance which will no doubt be a popular one for Turner’s fans to shout back at him. The song poses a counter-point to complaints that some of the songs are shallow – those intrigued by the track about Sha’awari’s efforts with the EFU can pick up a book, and wrangling a ‘fuck-you-I-won’t do-what-you-tell-me’ out of her refusal to wear a face veil post-widowhood holds some musical worth of its own – there’s really no rule that says historical songs must double as Cliffs Notes. And in some places, Turner just allows it to be fun, like on opener ‘Jinny Binghams Ghost’ – a darkly upbeat old-timey number reminiscent of Nick Cave’s ‘Murder Ballads’
‘Rescue Annie’ falls into the category as well, but with less success – Turner’s desire to create a song about a woman ‘who died never having been kissed and became the most kissed face in history’ is more intriguing than the resulting run-of-the-mill folk track that follows.
The songwriting becomes more interesting when Turner switches to first person – ‘Eye of the Day’, deftly weaves through the life of Mata Hari (‘ If anyone asks, I named myself after the sun’) , a courtesan executed in 1917 for alleged espionage. Turners vivid narrative ends in an a capella description of her last stand, ‘staring down the soldiers and the hatred of the world/I felt the warmth of the Malay sun and I smiled for them all’, Hari finding a quiet dignified victory in her unjust death.
‘The Hymn of Kassiani’ – concerning revered hymnographer St Kassia (‘the woman who rejected the king’) uses the first person in a folk-reimagining of the Byzantine troparion. Here, Kassias actions are attributed to independence rather than piousness – a curious take, even if borne from Turner’s avowed atheism. This same cynicism is layered with blind loyalty on ‘I Believed You, William Blake’ told wistfully from Catherine Blake’s perspective. The only number in this style that doesn’t really land is ‘A Perfect Wife’, an attempt at an acoustic introspective of Nannie Doss. Serial killer songs can’t get away with being this bloodless.
‘The Graveyard of the Outcast Dead’ is where the use of POV gets most interesting, spanning multiple eras from a beyond-the grave perspective. Turner – exploring the stories of forgotten women in a literal sense – narrates from the viewpoint of an unnamed resident of Cross Bones Yard, where the remains of Londons sex workers were interred without ceremony. It’s a festive, tragic-yet-uplifting Celtic style ballad that stands as the albums best offering.
‘No Man’s Land’ uses its theme creatively and (largely) successfully to create the albums running duality – the one conceptual outlier being ‘Rosemary Jane’ about Turner’s own mother – the only living subject on the album and the only track which Franks detractors really can’t claim would have been better written by someone else. It’s a little gentle to be a track with a great deal of replay value, but it’s certainly interesting to get a rare insight into Turner’s upbringing, a la ‘Fathers Day’.
Despite its significantly polarizing reception, No Man’s Land is neither a potent hour of feminist history, nor a gimmicky self-absorbed attempt at folk-woke – rather it’s a sincere stab at something new from a seasoned, gradually evolving musician, and an assuring indicator that Turner’s future holds a few more surprises. While it certainly doesn’t always hit, when it works this type of songwriting brings out an earnestness and occasional subtlety in him – it would be interesting to see him continue this style outside of a concept that doesn’t carry such automatic nay-saying.