Frank Turner
No Man's Land



by Channing Freeman STAFF
August 17th, 2019 | 42 replies

Release Date: 08/16/2019 | Tracklist

Review Summary: “Here hang your hopes, your dreams, your might-have-beens, your locks, your keys, your mysteries.” – John Constable

For a man whose level of controversy has often outweighed his popularity, Frank Turner is bold to release an album entirely about women, a move that seems to invite and even welcome criticism. Early takes in the British press were happy to oblige, accusing Frank of appropriation and, strangely, “mansplaining.” As has been said countless times, there is plenty of money to be made by writing outraged hot takes ignorant of context, so perhaps there isn’t much of a point in discussing them. It should be obvious that Frank Turner choosing to write an album exclusively about women is not inherently wrong. What matters, as with any male author intending to write about women or in a woman’s voice, is how they do it. Accompanied by female studio musicians and produced by Catherine Marks, No Man’s Land is largely respectful and avoids any appropriation. A weekly podcast, Tales from No Man’s Land, provides a deeper context about the women in the songs and why he wrote about them, and all of the guests thus far have been women except for one.

The true tests for the songs on No Man’s Land are whether they can stand on their own apart from the wider context provided by the podcast, and whether Frank can find a balance between storytelling and interesting songwriting. When he can break free from the constraints of providing the context for these women’s lives and get at the emotional core of their stories, Frank is at his best. “I Believed You, William Blake” frames Catherine Blake in the shadow of her husband. Historians know next to nothing about her except within the context of William Blake’s work, so the song instead reveals a deep, fearful yearning that, while fictitious, feels incredibly real. “A Perfect Wife,” written about serial killer Nannie Doss, eschews storytelling entirely in favor of a suspiciously cheery indie-pop tune that wouldn’t sound out of place on Be More Kind if not for its morbidly bleak humor. The updated version of Positive Songs for Negative People’s “Silent Key” is a welcome new recording of one of Frank’s best songs, full of lilting strings and a brooding synth in the bridge. However, it is anyone’s guess why Esme Patterson’s original guest spot is sung by Frank himself on an album ostensibly about women. Not only does it hurt the album’s overall concept, the song now pinballs between narrative voices in a way that is surely confusing for those hearing it for the first time.

Podcast listeners will know that, at the end of every episode, Frank plays the subject’s song, often in a location central to the story. Catherine Blake’s song is played next to her grave, his tribute to the “outcast dead” is played in the titular graveyard, and he serenades Jinny Bingham’s ghost in the house where she died. Removed from these auspicious locations, some of the songs suffer in the sterile light of the studio. “Sister Rosetta,” though catchy, all but plods through its four minutes, and Frank sounds bored and a little tired, even at the end when he triumphantly proclaims that Rosetta has finally made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Eye of the Day,” one of the quietest and softly-sung songs of his career, leans too heavily on biographical details and goes on too long, though the lyrics themselves are beautiful (“If anybody asks, I named myself after the sun”). And while Frank has always been prone to hokey rhymes, some of the more traditional folk tunes see him at his worst, singing lines like, “Dressed in black, she was a classic beauty but cursed with constitution sickly,” and, “On the day she died, they swore they saw the devil by her side/a mob broke down her door and from her chair her body pried.”

No Man’s Land is a tightrope, and even when the songs are weak, Frank is largely successful at keeping his lyrical balance. However, “Rescue Annie,” sees him tumbling over the side. As the story goes, “Annie” drowned in the 1800s, and after her death, a plaster cast was made of her face. Later, a toymaker used that plaster cast as the face of the first CPR dummy. She has been called “the most kissed face in the world,” so that detail can’t be credited to Frank. However, his framing of Annie as a sixteen-year-old virgin and “unlucky lover” (none of which is actually known about her) is questionable. When he goes on to describe the CPR dummies lying in the darkness of hospitals, waiting for their missing kiss, it becomes clear that he is talking about the life-saving act that she has inadvertently taught to millions of people since her death. But, taken as a whole, the jigsaw lyrics don’t quite fit properly. All that being said, the tune itself is quite good (though, with a mid-tempo pace and resonant piano chords, maybe a bit too grandiose for the subject matter), and it joins a few other late-period Frank songs, like “Mittens” and “Love Forty Down,” that have horrendous lyrics but are nonetheless fun to sing along with.

The album is far from perfect, but it is still temping to describe it as a welcome return to form for a songwriter who has lately ventured closer to fluffy indie-pop than the biting folk that made his name. The best of the songs on No Man’s Land mix dense historiography with accessible catchiness. “The Lioness” is a frenetic rock song with one of the year’s best soaring choruses. “Rosemary Jane” is a touching tribute to Frank’s mother and a suitably effective capstone to the project. “The Graveyard of the Outcast Dead” blends fact, fiction, and a “Fairytale of New York” vibe. However, No Man’s Land was written before Be More Kind, and it is difficult to say what that portends for Frank’s future albums. Be More Kind had its strengths (and I’m particularly fond of its poppiest tune, “Little Changes”), but as a whole it tended toward the tepid. But, eight albums into an unlikely career, I still carry a font of hope for one of music’s best live performers and one of my favorite songwriters.

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user ratings (44)

Comments:Add a Comment 
Staff Reviewer
August 17th 2019


Really great review as always, chan

Looking forward to hearing this as soon as I’m able to pull myself away from the new Off With Their Heads (which I think you would love btw)

Digging: Latterman - No Matter Where We Go...!

August 17th 2019


Album Rating: 3.5

Nice rounded review Chan.

I found this album really enjoyable, as did my two feminist friends who listened with me. Some of the British music industry press have gone way overboard on the whole "mansplaining" and appropriation criticism.

Damn, if a talented musician, thoughtful human male, wants to do a concept album about historical female figures, in his own unique way, than we should focus on the positive aspects of this. For example, bringing the characters in his songs into the realm of a whole new audience. I for one hadn't heard the story of all the women in this album, and am not taking each song as their lifestory, but instead a jumping point to find out more about them.

I'm sure the women in Frank's life would be proud of him for writing this album.

Digging: Tyson Motsenbocker - Someday I?ll Make it All Up to You

August 17th 2019


Frank Turner has no arms

Staff Reviewer
August 17th 2019


Good journalism. I'll check "The Lioness", going from what you said. It's been a long time since I've listened to a Frank Turner tune.

Digging: Little People - Mickey Mouse Operation

August 17th 2019


Album Rating: 4.0 | Sound Off

Great review and sums up my thoughts really well. Outside of a song here or there, I’m really unfamiliar with his back catalog. The lyrics to this are beautiful though, and I think he did a smart thing in telling the stories of historical women but always posing them as their stories, not his characters (which is why Rescue Annie is fairly uncomfortable). I think it, for the most part, thoughtful and carefully done.

I’ll need to check the podcast for sure.

Digging: Spanish Love Songs - Brave Faces Everyone

Staff Reviewer
August 17th 2019


Album Rating: 4.0

Thanks, all.

DM, you will probably really enjoy his earlier albums. England Keep My Bones is his best if you ask me, but they all have their merits. I'd recommend starting with older stuff first, rather than going backwards.

Observer, "The Lioness" is sonically unique on the album, but it is pretty similar to a lot of his rockier material from older albums. The chorus is truly great.

And Slothcore, I agree with everything you said. The worst was that NME article written immediately after he announced the album/released "Sister Rosetta." The writer had only heard one song and was already shitting on the entire project. Just silly.

Atari, they are next on my list!

I didn't get to touch on this in the review, but it is funny that the outrage machine (in the UK in particular, where he's most popular) has latched on to this album, when in my opinion Frank has said some political stuff that is much more offensive than anything on here.

August 17th 2019


great review, chan. last thing i heard by frank was england keep my bones. didn't really realize he had put out 4 albums since then. kinda curious to jump into this and see how different it sounds

August 17th 2019


His last release was forgettable at best, so hopefully this one ends up being a pleasant surprise.

August 18th 2019


Is this guy ever gonna release something good again

August 18th 2019


hate the cover art

Staff Reviewer
August 18th 2019


Album Rating: 4.0

The picture on here is the podcast art that has more logos and stuff, but yeah it is truly ugly. The single covers are a lot better.

August 18th 2019


Nice to see a review of this that doesn't double up as a hit piece

Staff Reviewer
August 18th 2019


Album Rating: 4.0

I should also say that I like the album more than this review lets on. Personally it's probably a 4, but critically it's just as easy to criticize it than it is to praise it.

Contributing Reviewer
August 18th 2019


Absolutely loved all of the singles except Eye of the Day, lyrics sound like an overbearing history teacher trying to interest his bored students

Excited to get to the rest of this ASAP

Digging: King Krule - Man Alive!

August 18th 2019


Album Rating: 3.5

This was a pretty enjoyable record, a good recovery from the lifeless "Be Kind"

and a nice review

Digging: Hop Along - Get Disowned

August 19th 2019


Album Rating: 2.0

Great review, I pretty much agree on everything and your writing inspires as always. The Lioness is such a great tune and singlehandedly bumps this up a notch for me. With that said, the album as a whole is still a front-to-end improvement over Be More Kind which was bordering on self-parody.

Digging: Tame Impala - The Slow Rush

Staff Reviewer
August 19th 2019


Yeah, i definitely liked lioness.

August 19th 2019


Album Rating: 2.0 | Sound Off

album art looks like someone spent 30 minutes in photoshop and was like eh that'll do

August 19th 2019


Album Rating: 3.0

That was fun, but nothing really more than that. Nothing really special for me but nothing really boring or horrible either.

Digging: Envy - The Fallen Crimson

August 19th 2019


This guy is just uuuugghhh

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