Frank Turner’s good intentions are clear on No Man’s Land. His new release is an album solely about women; relatively well-known historical figures such as spy Mata Hari and gospel singer/electric guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, obscure ones such as his own mother and the behind the scenes wife of English poet William Blake, and oddball choices including “Rescue Annie” as he invents the biography of the inspiration for the CPR dummies that people practice their lifesaving skills on. Turner is accompanied by an all distaff crew of musical accompanists and produced by Catherine Marks. He’s also created a weekly podcast Tales from No Man’s Land to provide additional context about the women who populate these songs and explain why he wrote them. Turner’s goal to educate and inform listeners about women’s history and take the cause into the present and move it forward should be respected.
However, the more important question to ask is not whether Turner’s intentions are noble, but instead, is the music any good? The answer for this is positive yet more mixed. Turner has always had a mercurial relationship with his recordings. He’s an exuberant, charismatic live performer. I’ve seen him perform more than a half a dozen times at a variety of venues from open outdoor busking amidst a host of carnival distractions to dive clubs claustrophobic with moshing fans to more formal stage shows. He’s always been able to capture the crowd’s attention and admiration. His albums, on the other hand, have been more spotty: some have been awesome while others are mediocre.
Apparently, No Man’s Land was written before Be More Kind (2018). Many critics lambasted the former punk rocker for his softer folk-rock approach on Be More Kind. But it was an inspiring album that protested and promoted hope, community, and positive change after the election of President Donald Trump. What some people hated about the softer sound, other fans loved, and reviews were widely split. While No Man’s Land is clearly not a punk album, it does have a harder sound than Be More Kind.
Consider the pounding drums and harsh guitars featured on “The Lioness” about Egyptian feminist Huda Sha’arawi. The loud musical accompaniment fit the lyrics about a woman who rebels against the sexism of her place and time to declare her independence and self-worth. Several of the folkier tunes, such as “The Graveyard of the Outcast Dead” (an unconsecrated post-medieval cemetery where prostitutes were interred), often start quietly with just Turner’s voice and acoustic guitar before building to noisy climaxes. And even the poppier tunes, such as “A Perfect Wife” about serial killer Nannie Doss, contain enough darkness to compensate for their joyful spirits ala the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer”. The suggested sounds of glee transform into something much more sinister when associated with the lyrical facts.
That said, the songs’ ambitions often exceed their execution. Turner sometimes stretches out a phrase, engages in verbal gymnastics, or gets clumsy in attempts to have the words fit the melodies. On the lovely tribute to the British-born jazz patron Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter (“Nica”), he immediately follows the line “You only need to hear one piece of advice, each of us only gets one life” with “Nica spent hers flying. She was freer than the French”. The clunkiness of the couplet mars the original sentiment expressed.
No Man’s Land may be flawed in this respect, but Turner’s creativity overrides the defects. In a certain way, the album’s blemishes highlight its other charms in the way a beauty mark may positively accent the rest of a person’s features. The record and its concept should be applauded for their shared aspirations and accomplishments.