Album Review: Frank Turner - 'No Man's Land'

A concept album which is as defiant of its cynics as the female figures it recalls, Frank Turner’s ‘No Man’s Land’ is an astoundingly versatile and sensitive work of musical storytelling.

I’ve tried to come at the record as a student rather than a teacher,” were the words spoken to me by the veteran folk singer little over a month ago at 2000 Trees Festival. Approaching a subject as topical and divisive as ‘women in history’ from the point of view of a privileged white man is an undertaking which will inevitably bring hordes of socially engaged (shall we say) journalists, musicians and members of the general public gifted with a Twitter account to the debating table, a conversation Turner openly embraced during our chat back in July: “I’ve had like a million conversations about Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the last few weeks with people who’ve never heard of her before, and that in itself is what I was trying to achieve.” A humble objective, but one which is vitally important to be understood prior to forming an opinion on whether No Man’s Land succeeds as a concept album.

Crucially, the success criteria for a concept album remains exactly the same in this instance as it would with any other, regardless of the somewhat slanted takes from various mainstream publications, and these criterion are merely two-fold. Firstly, the album must deal with its subject matter in a way which is sensitive and accurate, at least in the eyes of an appreciable amount of people. And secondly, the album must offer, create and illustrate a perspective beyond that which could be obtained by simple observation of the facts surrounding the concept at hand. Putting the formalities aside, No Man’s Land achieves the former for its entire duration, and the latter for the majority of its duration. The abundant moments when the two coincide are nothing short of magic.

I Believed You, William Blake, released one day prior to the full album, is a prime example of a delicate intertwining of those two dynamics to create a song bursting with emotion and spine-tingling empathy. A folk ballad written from the perspective of Catherine Blake, the wife, supporter and assistant of seminal Romantic Age artist William Blake, the care and justice with which Turner treats its subject along with the throbbing string sections which accompany its most dramatic turns render the age, gender and background of the songwriter entirely obsolete. The closing cascade of organic instrumentation sees Turner wail in a final plea from wife to husband in an effort to remind the then unrecognised artist of her undying belief in his work.

Turner puts the finishing touches on No Man's Land with producer Catherine Marks. Credit: Frank Turner's Facebook page.

On the other end of the spiritual spectrum but boasting equal defiance is The Lioness. Shedding light on the founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union Huda Sha’arawi, famous for her blatant subversion of Egyptian patriarchal convention, the yells of “She isn’t gonna hide her face anymore” behave like a mosh-pit inducing call-to-arms for the liberally minded amidst a barrage of electric guitars and rampant drums. Remarkably, on a concept record, Turner has arguably delivered his most unrelenting piece of punk rock since Four Simple Words, a feat which is made all the more impressive considering how respectfully he captures the essence of the movement and its societal demands.

"The abundant moments when sensitivity and perspective coincide are nothing short of magic."

Yet nowhere does Turner seem more in his element appreciating the character of historical women than on A Perfect Wife, written and entwined in the mind of Nannie Doss throughout her serial mariticides. This is the track which sees Turner really push his songwriting boundaries – the tongue-in-cheek lyrics coupled with the homely acoustic guitar tones take any expectations of simple recount storytelling and murders them in broad daylight to the point of near-hilarity. The recurrent “Oh, oh, oh, I haven’t been a perfect wife / I’m a lonely heart, looking for the real romance in my life” inbetween stories of trauma and torment lure the listener into forming an otherworldly connection with the deranged narrator, until the song abruptly ends with “Take it easy, don’t worry / I’ll be fine in here”, a reference to Doss’ eventual arrest and internment at Oklohoma State Penitentiary. The closing line reverberates in the track’s final seconds as if echoing around the steel walls of a high-security prison cell, thus curtailing the listener’s brief connection with the subject.

As aforementioned, the connections made from Turner to listener to historical figure on No Man’s Land are frequent and divine, but on occasion the album struggles to offer anything profound enough to spark the listener’s imagination. Lead single Sister Rosetta recalls arguably the most high-profile figure on the album, and works nicely as an introduction to the album’s premise, but achieves little aside from the catchiness of the basic folk-rock hook and the simple exposure it gives to ‘the Godmother of rock and roll.’ Rosemary Jane is a pleasant album closer, satisfyingly tying up the relationship between the album’s concept and Turner’s personal life, but it doesn’t offer the level of insight as to its subject that the album’s prior tracks do, leaving the listener relatively unfamiliar with Frank Turner’s headteacher mother (though this may be a forgivably personal omission). Neither of these harm the tracklist and certainly set about achieving the objective of awareness Turner laid out in our interview, they just don’t quite push the boundaries in the way the album’s highlights do.

A more curious cut is the inclusion of Silent Key, the song Turner wrote about Christa McAuliffe, a victim of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and included on 2015’s Positive Songs For Negative People. Many original reservations about the song are remedied here – a folk-ier, more gentle approach to the “And she died” refrain is a welcome change from the somewhat abrasive rock which hindered the original mix. However, the bridge which originally featured a shimmering duet from Turner and Esmé Patterson is exchanged for a less subtle, more choral approach at the expense of the intimacy of the song. When the song takes a turn for the fictional and links the disaster to a young Turner, the integrity of a factually-minded album becomes slightly compromised, the distorted feedback-esque synthesiser failing to compliment the replayability of the rendition.

Image courtesy of Getty

These moments, however, are few and far between, and overwhelmingly Turner opts for well realised curveballs as opposed to safe and unadventurous folk music. Nica, focussed on Pannonica de Koenigswarter, an influential mogul of the New York jazz scene, is a laid-back saunter through the sounds of the Manhattan streets, with crisp-as-day saxophones and trumpets. The Hymn of Kassiani on the other hand is literally a Byzantine hymn. Referencing an instance in which the Emperor Theophilos approached the titular figure at a ‘bride show’ (think a Love Island recoupling where the only person recoupling is the king) to be greeted with the response “And through a woman came forth better things.” Lyrics “And Theo he thinks I still love him / But I know him and he knows not a thing / They call me Kassiani, the woman who rejected the king” are delivered with such grace and elegance as to almost place the listener in the sombre atmosphere surrounding the poet and composer in the tense time that followed.

"Overwhelmingly Turner opts for well realised curveballs as opposed to safe and unadventurous folk music."

Turner’s versatility on No Man’s Land is consistently astonishing, a far cry from the depressive folk of debut Sleep Is for the Week or even the pop-leaning sensibilities of 2018's Be More Kind. If anyone who knows Turner’s work from the days of underground anthems such as I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous or whiskey-soaked balladry like Jet Lag and is wondering whether he’s mellowed with age, they couldn’t be more wrong. Regardless of whether it features loud acoustic guitars, yelling and swearing, No Man’s Land is far and away Turner’s bravest, ballsiest and least self-centred offering yet. Beyond all else, it’s a fascinating series of tales which, if they don’t engulf and engross the listener in music form, will when they take the time to read the history for themselves.