No woman’s land either
It can be said that musicians should be careful when getting political with their work. Of course, it’s important that they use their platforms to speak up if they have something to say, but the music should always remain essential. As soon as the implicit meaning becomes more important to the artist than the quality of the music itself, it loses credibility. Unfortunately, Frank Turner’s No Man’s Land is at the crux of this issue, and the rich seam of writing he corroborates indelibly goes back to the system he is supposedly speaking out against.
No Man’s Land is half concept, half story, looking at fascinating women in history whose lives were overlooked because of their gender, including Huda Sha’arawi, Nica Rothschild, Jinny Bigham, Nannie Doss and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Turner described the process of bringing his two central obsessions together into one thing, as holistic, and after giving the album a listen, that’s a pretty good summation – straight indie acoustics that sometimes seeps into heavier guitar riffs and stagey vocals.
The opening track comes in with an ode to CPR Annie (the popular name for a model manikin used in lifesaving and first aid training), and immediately shows that Turner’s composition, albeit comfortable, is by no means progressive. A lot of the time it feels too deliberate for its own good. There are moments where he isolates his nervous vocals by way of fake intimacy, and the “Rescue Annie” chorus refrain is way too ’90s-love-ballad, Teenage Dirt Bag for an artist who sells himself as seriously as Turner does.
“Rosemary Jane” feels confused – it’s like he’s trying to replicate Chris Martin’s soaring vocal style, or rather reinvent it, but mix that with his highland guitars and hum-strung melodies and it’s simply an affectation with no interpretation. Tracks like “Dora Hand” and “Nica” feel equally as sheep-ish (literally), while tracks like “Perfect Wife” are blatant commercial attempts with no substance. Doesn’t Turner know that Ed Sheeran does it better? “Ginny Bingham’s Ghost” is all the more predictable, the kind of fast-folk that has become almost obligatory for singer-songwriters these days – the quick guitar strumming, the one-note voice and the drum roll tap – to put it frankly, No Man’s Land has got to be one of the most one-dimensional records I’ve heard this year.
Nevertheless, this is a style we’ve come to expect of Turner, and the tracks are certainly easy enough for the vast majority of listeners to like in one way or another. The problem comes in when we’re expected to consider these tracks as something bigger than the ballads they are, such that Turner’s ‘concept’ feels like the biggest affectation of them all.
The thing is that these were never really Turner’s stories to tell. If he truly wanted to celebrate these women, he could have found another way of giving life to their stories without bagging the profit for every sale he makes off the tracks. And while this isn’t to say that no man can ever pay homage to a woman’s legacy, this just feels like a backhanded approach. He’s clearly aware of the bigger issue, and granted, he does compensate for it by working with a cast of female collaborators, including producer Catherine Marks and an all-female instrumentation. He could have done even more though, maybe by bringing on other female artists to actually feature in the tracks, artists like Laura Marling or Angel Olsen, both active voices in the industry. Why not donate some of the profits to a women’s rights organization? Ultimately, it’s a matter of inclusivity, and the people who this album truly belong to, the women who gave it life, reap no benefits. It was certainly never Turner’s intention to misrepresent them, but by simply taking ownership of their lives for himself, he is as complicit as the system that initially repressed them.