Frank Turner – ‘No Man’s Land’

By Catie Allwright

This wouldn’t be a comprehensive review if it didn’t at least acknowledge the uncomfortable grimace on the face of the music industry when Frank Turner released the concept album ‘No Man’s Land’. Its thirteen tracks are dedicated to overlooked, influential women throughout history (and the last track for his mum), ranging from 17th-century Camden landlady Jinny Bingham and Byzantine princess Kassiani, to the apocryphal drowned virgin, Resusci Anne, whose face was used as the model for the medical CPR mannequin. Alongside the album, a series of podcasts expand on their tales with detailed interviews with historians, poets, and fellow musicians.

While ‘No Man’s Land’ has been met with some accusations of mansplaining, misfiring and an array of other insults, with further consideration, this reception may be misplaced. If any word comes to mind when thinking of Turner, it’s wholesome. He warmed our hearts when he covered ‘Under The Sea’ for his niece back in 2015, and has long been an advocate of initiatives like Safe Gigs for Women and Girls Against. The sheer depth and effort of creating hours of podcast material alongside the album makes ‘No Man’s Land’ an earnest marrying of his two loves, history and songwriting, rather than just a feeble attempt at throwing his hat in the feminist ring.

It can be all too easy to immediately discount such comments from a white male as being disingenuous, but if allies are shot down for using their positions of power and privilege to celebrate women, in collaboration with relevant and predominantly female experts, how can we ever progress as a feminist society? Turner himself often comments on the fact that nobody else is telling these stories (or at least not nearly enough), and the more ‘up-swell’, the better and he’ll happily admit that rock and roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the protagonist of track two, is a better guitarist than him, suggesting this statement has little to do with personal ego.

Some songs are clearly orchestrated to be catchy but music is an art form, and art was created to tell stories – whether imaginary or real – so in this instance it’s more about what the songs represent than what they sound like. While potentially not as rallying as Turner’s earliest albums, or as soothing as ‘Be More Kind’, the stories explored throughout ‘No Man’s Land’ are compelling and versatile, from the sea shanty-esque ‘Jinny Bingham’s Ghost’ to the hotel lobby jazz of ‘Nica’. Unified by Turner’s characteristic folk, ‘No Man’s Land’ takes influence from a smorgasbord of different genres to best represent each narrative. ‘The Hymn of Kassiani’ begins and ends acapella, a tribute to the original hymn that’s still sung in Greek Orthodox churches, whilst ‘Sister Rosetta’ features some of her most iconic, guitar-slinging riffs.

For anything to be truly understood it needs context, so Turner has managed to shine a spotlight on something much bigger than himself in ‘No Man’s Land’: witchcraft, religion, social hierarchies, the American frontier, forgotten empires and more in a whistle-stop tour throughout the centuries and around the world. If you judge this album purely on musical value alone then it’s very good, but not great; but, if you invest a few hours to really learn about archetypal femme fatale and WW1 spy Mata Hari, murdered dance hall singer Dora Hand, and the whole sisterhood, then you’ll love it – and you’ll want to share their stories too.

CATIE ALLWRIGHT

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