So much more has been said around this album than about it, and it’s not hard to see why. Frank Turner hasn’t exactly been averse to controversies over the past couple of years, and so to come forward with an album like No Man’s Land, exploring the lives of various marginalised and under-appreciated women throughout history, feels about as clean-cut as an attempt at reputation repair gets. But that’s subsequently led to even more backlash, with accusations of simply talking about and profiting off these women rather than making any effort to uplift and empower them. Regardless of the viewpoint it’s looked at, the whole run-up to No Man’s Land has not been a success in the slightest, and that’s even without discussing the music given how vastly overshadowed by discourse it’s been.
So when approaching that and distancing it from the minutiae of the contextual debate (mostly because that’s a small-to-medium-sized minefield that this writer doesn’t even feel remotely equipped to navigate), it can be easy to see how Turner is trying to play for some good will. The whole album is recorded with an entirely female backing band and studio team, after all, and is generally more stripped back in order to let the stories and narratives stand out even more. But when bringing every element of it together, No Man’s Land doesn’t really go anywhere, nor does it succeed as the sort of bigger statement that was clearly intended. It suffers from a lot of the same problems as last year’s Be More Kind, namely that there’s a kernel of an idea in there, but the execution is so botched in its lack of commitment or addressal to key concepts that it barely gets half of the way there.
And while there are certainly issues in abundance with the writing, the overall presentation of the album has a similar sense of disconnect that rarely does itself justice. For one, the choice to keep the main level so placid and mid-paced seems baffling for an album centred around celebration and empowerment, with the more fiery, quicker-stepping gallop of The Lioness being the solitary moment that really captures that vision to any meaningful extent. It’s not like the playing is terrible either, dipping into welcome spots of variation with elements of jazz on Nica and country on The Death Of Dora Hand, and there’s a general warmth to the production that goes down about as well as whenever Turner dips into his more solemn material. But in making that such a big part of the album, the whole thing comes across as so drained and listless, and not befitting of the stories of triumph that he clearly wants to tell. It honestly leaves a lot of these songs bleeding together, unable to move away from very light frameworks of acoustic guitar and occasional soft percussion and strings to the point where the attempt made to keep the listener fixated on these stories feels so flimsy.
And that inevitably comes to the matter of the writing, the constant sticking point that’s dogged this album since its announcement, for which the knee-jerk distaste has admittedly come across a bit too strong, though not really by that much. From a purely superficial standpoint, you can make the argument that Turner has the literary sense of songwriting that can make something like this work, and with a track like The Graveyard Of The Outcast Dead and the almost Dickensian imagery that accompanies it, the scene-setting and narration is certainly strong. It’s looking beyond all of that where the problems lie though, and how Turner’s well-meaning goal doesn’t exactly pan out when it feels like the stories of these women is simply being recited with no effort made to engage with that empowerment or uplifting. There’s definitely appreciation paid on a track like Sister Rosetta, but that’s converse to the likes of Silent Key or The Death Of Dora Hand that focus more on the events themselves, and leave the women as auxiliary characters in what are supposed to be their own stories. Then there’s the emphasis put on relationships with men on I Believed You, William Blake, or Turner playing the role of the women in question like on Eye Of The Day and The Hymn Of Kassiani, and the whole thing seems to get profoundly muddled in the interim between simply telling these stories, and the empowerment that was clearly laid on the table. It’s not a problem to have this album as a collection of stories on paper (mostly because a lot of them are genuinely interesting), but there’s an inherit lack of depth to that that Turner doesn’t readily address, and for an album that’s already incredibly stripped-back – probably more than it should be – it can come across as throwaway and flippant.
It leaves the heaviest hanging question as who this album is really for. Obviously those for whom it was designed to please and appease haven’t taken to it, and when Turner has done this sort of thing a lot better many times in the past, it’s hard to see anyone except the most diehard fans gravitating towards it. Because really, this doesn’t feel like an album that was given the care or thought it deserves; the quick turnaround time does a fair bit to attest for that, but the generally barebones production and a messy lyrical focus that doesn’t really achieve anything sees No Man’s Land as a profound blank spot within Turner’s catalogue. It’s not without merit, though its hard to see even its best moments lasting that long, and the most overriding feeling is that it probably would’ve been best if this just hadn’t have been made at all.
For fans of: Billy Bragg, Esmé Patterson, Rob Lynch
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘No Man’s Land’ by Frank Turner is out now on Polydor Records.