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.