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Frank Turner - 'No Man's Land' Album Review


1. Jinny Bingham's Ghost

2. Sister Rosetta

3. I Believed You, William Blake

4. Nica

5. A Perfect Wife

6. Silent Key

7. Eye Of The Day

8. The Death Of Dora Hand

9. The Graveyard Of The Outcast Dead

10. The Lioness

11. The Hymn Of Kassiani

12. Rescue Annie

13. Rosemary Jane

Frank Turner released his previous album "Be More Kind" just last year and, despite the near constant touring since then, he's managed to revisit the studio. Normally albums released this close to each other tend to feature material that wasn't quite good enough the first time around or needed more time to be completed. Not this time though. This is all new material (excluding an adaptation of a previous song of his) that nail themselves to a concept that Turner uses to challenge himself, a concept of exploring the stories behind female figures that, as a whole, have been lost to history.

With "No Man's Land" Turner takes himself completely out of his usual comfort zone. In the accompanying podcast he mentions that he writes about himself and that he never wanted to make a concept album. Both of these traits are out of the window with this album as Turner turns his back on his own rule book in an attempt to create something that stands as an aside to his career while still providing the listener with unravelled threads that can be followed to his previous work. It’s not as dissimilar as Mogol Horde is to his usual persona, which at times can jar the listener’s expectations. Occasionally it feels like one of his usual albums, only for something to come along and catch you out.

The album has roots in history, or rather the study of it. Turner's interest of history is something that's given the album it's basic theme. In it he explores the stories of different women from history, most of whom are relatively unknown to most people. The figures here come to life thanks to Turner’s writing, which is both respectful and reverential. It’s not a feminist album as some suggested when it was first announced, but instead allows the musician to talk about subjects that are not his usual staple. Frank isn’t using this as a way to leap on any bandwagon. It’s a case of saying that we don’t have to be women to talk about women and the struggles they’ve gone through, but that as a man we can help give weight to a feminist argument in the name of equality. He’s even pushed himself musically in a similar way to help achieve his idea. Absent from here are his usual backing band, the Sleeping Souls, with Turner instead utilising the talents of various female musicians, studio crew and producers that helps give the album a fresher feel for him and a one that fits in with the whole theme of the album.

Normally I like to dig into the song's subjects in my review but with this it's a bit redundant as Frank has created a podcast series "Tales From No Man's Land" that has a lot more information. Each episode, released weekly, takes a song and gives you the story behind it. They're fascinating, covering people from Sister Rosetta Tharpe (the godmother of modern Rock music well before the likes of Elvis) to Mata Hari, the prototype femme fatale. There's tales of murder, injustice, dark deeds and redemption. If you're interested in the album, its subject matter or even just some unusual tales from the past I really recommend searching for it on Spotify and the usual podcast hosts. In these he gives you enough to understand the story behind each song without drowning the listener in facts, leaving you the option of exploring each one further if you so wish.

Anyway, back to the album itself. Opening strong is ‘Jinny Bingham’s Ghost’, a song that comes along like a Nick Cave murder ballad. It’s shuffling drum beat and tales of death recalls a traditional Folk style that’s been updated with a bit of a modern twist. It leads us into ‘Sister Rosetta’ which borrows heavily from the Rock and Roll style she helped pioneer, throwing a little Soul and Gospel in to add some flavour. ‘I Believed You, William Blake’ is sad, almost mournful in it’s tone. A strong opening trio that shows growth from his usual style without sounding too different.

‘Nica’ draws upon a traditional Jazz style, invoking the era of the song’s subject matter. For me it seems to fall a little flat, stumbling a little when it should glide, the muted trumpet and the like sounding a little too muted in the song’s palate. ‘A Perfect Wife’ is more gentle on the ears, it’s soft drum loops working well in the context of the song.

Found originally on his album “Positive Songs For Negative People” ‘Silent Key’ is here reimagined a little darker and more sparse than it’s first appreance. The familiarity and arrangement feels a little uncomfortable here, another bump in the album’s road, with a finger picked ‘Eye Of The Day’ rights the journey, its sound more reassuring to us than than the previous song.

‘The Death Of Dora Hand’ is a little more theatrical, which fits with the subject matter, and a dramatically titled ‘The Graveyard Of The Outcast Dead’ sits well beside it. ‘The Lioness’ picks the pace up quite a bit compared to many of the other songs here, a chugging electric guitar on the verses allows the chorus to open itself up more than others on the album.

An acapella opening brings us ‘The Hymn Of Kassiani’, the most different sounding song on the album with its use of eastern modes in the music, its softness pleasing to the ear if a little stylistically jarring. ‘Rescue Annie’ tells of the grim origin of the design of the doll used in rescussitation training while the album closer, finally, ‘Rosemary Jane’ is written for Frank’s own mother. It builds from a simple guitar into an orchestral epic, an ode to everything his mother has given up for him and his sister.

“No Man’s Land” sits a little oddly in Turner’s catalogue. There are songs that sound as though they could have stepped from any of his previous albums but others that come across a little forced. The motivation behind the release is pure and well meant, but it’s a shame that the album itself stumbles in places. Perhaps it could have been better served as a series of EPs rather than as an album, but that isn’t my decision to make. Viewed with the addition of the podcast helps with your understanding of the material and occasionally lends to better enjoy the songs but, unfortunately, it hardly lends itself to being essential listening. Rather, it’s an occasional fun diversion into Turner’s world, his love of history and our part in it. Take it as a learning experience, a chance to look at what influences an artist of Turner’s caliber. Perhaps if he’d made it more “Frank Turner” sounding or took more of a risk with it sounding different it would have been more successful. Instead, we’re left with an odd collection of songs that don’t necessarily excite the listener as a whole but intrigue us enough to keep listening.

Review - Scott Hamilton

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