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
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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
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
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.