“No Man’s Land” ~ Frank Turner, 2019 (Album Review)

It’s finally here, Frank Turner’s long awaited album #8. “No Man’s Land”. Some time ago I wrote a post explaining why I was excited about this project and I’d like to sum it up as sort of a disclaimer for this personal review: I’m a feminist. I like history. And I’m a Frank Turner Fangirl. I’ve been following the genesis of this album ever since Frank first mentioned it a few years ago and especially, when he started sharing a bit more on his social media in early 2019. With various reviews from newspapers, magazines or other (semi)-official critics absolutely tearing the album and him apart, my first impulse for this post was to defend him and his work to all of the negativity / hostility. But then I figured doing my own review is a much better way to spend my time and energy. I’ve tried to take off my fangirl-tinted glasses, but I’m afraid by now my love for Frank’s words and music has settled so deep into every fiber of my being and that it will always shine through.

Before I delve into each song separately I’d still like to address one issue, that has been raised in reviews and on Facebook, which basically states, that an album should work on it’s own and that it’s a disappointing piece of work, if it needs a podcast to explain what the songs are about. When I yesterday listened to the album’s songs I hadn’t known before (from podcasts etc) I could see where those critics were coming from. Because even though some of the songs worked for me without any background information, in other songs I definitely didn’t quite get what / who the song was about until I looked it up and read more about that woman. So in that regard I can understand the point of aforementioned critics. On the other hand though, right from the start this album was marketed as “something different”. As a whole concept of music and podcast and the invitation to all listeners to look up these (and other) women and learn more about them. And because as I had been following how the album came about I was prepared to do that anyway. But I can see how people who aren’t die had Frank followers might think that some songs lacks context.

I’ve listened to the whole album a few times now. I’ve listened to a few selected songs even many many times more ;-). All in all, I think it’s a good, solid piece of work. I still very much appreciate and support the whole concept: the album, the people involved, the podcast and all. I absolutely love some of the songs and personally consider those ones some of Frank’s best work recently. Others songs I enjoy, some I like ok and a very few songs I somehow haven’t managed to really connect with yet. I love the variety of musical styles, often very fitting to the time and geographical place of the woman he’s singing about. And can I just say that how impressed I am, that Frank played most of the guitar (and mandolin and piano etc) parts himself? Because there are some great riffs and finger picking in the layered sound of many of these arrangements.

On my very personal ★☆☆☆☆ to ★★★★★ scale this one has bigger variety than a regular Frank Turner & the Sleeping Souls album, but that’s fine, because it’s a different project.

01. Jinny Bingham’s Ghost ★★★★★
“He was a drinker, not a thinker,
Daily brought his wife to tears,
Until one Camden winter morning,
Darby simple disappeared.”

This is one of my favourite songs of this collection ever since the first time I’ve heard it during the album promotion a few weeks ago. It’s a great album opener as it musically stays in the familiar, fast paced folk punk territory, but adds a bit of more folky touch with the fiddle in the end. Listen closely to the variety of the amazing guitar work in the background, providing a great country vibe. Which isn’t quite Camden in the 17th century, but fits the theme of a bad ass female guest house owner.
I generally love Frank’s fast paced – a million syllables a minute – songs, because of the quick rhythm that often drives them. Add a consistent rhyme scheme and I’m a happy fangirl. I mean, I once wrote a whole post just about Rhyme and Rhythm in Frank’s lyrics. So these lyrics are right up my alley. I hope that even after the No Man’s Land tour this song will appear on the occasional set of a regular Frank & the Souls show, because I love to sing along to those words.

02. Sister Rosetta ★★★☆☆
“Don’t let her be forgotten in a church in Arkansas
Remember her teaching the Cotton Club
The glory of the Lord.”

This one has a nice beat, but for some reason the melody isn’t quite as catchy or memorable for me than other songs on this album. I still like it alright, because if you listen closely you’ll notice that once again there is some great guitar work going on below all of it. The gospel choir vibe in the bridge is a very nice touch for a song about a woman who started playing music in the church.

03. I Believed You, William Blake ★★★★★
“Then you must promise me
That you won’t leave me when you leave
This world that didn’t believe.”

OH MY GOD! My absolute favourite song in this collection. To be honest it’s definitely one of my favourites Frank has recently written. Or ever. To me it’s absolutely perfect. And I didn’t even know anything about William Blake, before I had heard this one for the first time at the book event in Manchester in March 2019. With this album I expected to be entertained and informed and maybe moved a bit about the injustice and suffering some of those women had to endure. I hadn’t expected to be moved on a more personal level, like Frank had managed to move me with many of his autobiographical songs. But these lyrics, the music and most of all how Frank puts so much emotion into it when he sings them, are incredibly moving. I can sense Catherine’s desperation in this one and that’s quite remarkable! The music itself does help with it of course, as to me the song in melody and structure resembles a hymn and thus feels like a lovely echo of or nod to the unofficial English national anthem “Jerusalem”, which is a Blake poem set to music. The instrumentation and arrangement here is superb, especially with the strings coming in for the finale. Kudos to Matt Nasir for helping out with this arrangement. All in all this song has absolutely blown me away and I basically have it on repeat on my iPod.

04. Nica ★★★☆☆
“The cats, they called you a butterfly,
But that’s not quite right;
Pannonica is a moth,
Known to come alive in the dark of night.”

Musically this one is new territory for me. I don’t have any real experience in listening to Jazz and I don’t know anything about it, so a lot of the references went over my head the first time I listened to this song. I mentioned above that I love a consistent rhyme scheme and this is often clearly lacking here, but the jazz rhythm and sound (trumpets, clarinet) make the song still work beautifully. I have to admit though that for me it was freakingly weird to hear Frank sing a song like this. But once I got used to it I can hear and appreciate that is a quite nice one and with this Frank pays adequate tribute to one of the patrons of this music genre.

05. A Perfect Wife ★★★★☆
“Didn’t do it for the money, in truth I was bored.
Nobody writes to me any more.
Cigarettes and prison walls
Will keep me company til I meet the Lord.”

I was ‘warned’ about this one by a friend, who had heard it live a few years ago. I love that music wise it’s a nice, easy going, almost catchy pop song, you bop and hum along to it. It reminds me of “Six Pence None The Richer” in the early 90s, sweet Swedish summer pop. Until you realize you’re bopping along to a song about a female serial killer! Even though I knew about that reveal, the first few times I listened to the song my mind still sort of did a double take and it took a tiny moment to adjust to. But that’s exactly why I like this song quite a lot. Does that make me a psycho? I’m not, promise.

06. Silent Key ★☆☆☆☆
“The darkness up above
Led me on like unrequited love
While all the things I need
Were down here in the deep blue sea”

To be blunt: I didn’t really need that version of Silent Key. And I surprised myself when I caught myself thinking: “I like the original version better” because with the original one I needed quite a while to be able to appreciate it. So I might need to give this one the benefit of the doubt. The added string section is sort of nice, but I think for this song the instrumentation of the original worked better. So… so far this new version is not my thing.

07. Eye of the Day ★★★☆☆
“I felt the warmth of the Malay sun and I smiled for them all:
They all thought they had the best of me,
But not one of them could say what I was called.”

I like the simple acoustic vibe of this one and – for a rhyme and rhythm nerd like me – these lyrics are an amazing piece of work. Not the typical “same amount of beats, A-B-A-B rhyme scheme” but still very much a noticeable rhyme and pattern, which I find quite fascinating. The melody as such is a bit too slow for my taste, but that’s ok.

08. The Death of Dora Hand ★★★☆☆
“Now young Spike Kenedy came up from Texas on a rolling black thunder cloud,
He was a-whooping and a-whoring and a-drowning in whiskey like a one man bad luck crowd.”

This one has a lovely country vibe with quite a few different instruments backing it up and that makes it a fitting sound for a song set in the Wild West. Frank played it at the gig a few days ago and it was fascinating to see him do the blue grass guitar picking. I love how more and more instruments are added in the second verse. The chorus is quite catchy as and I love the fast paced 2nd part (to me it’s too long to call it a bridge), where the words and music flow perfectly together. But that’s also why I personally feel a bit underwhelmed by the lyrical work in the first part. To me those lyrics feel a tiny bit uneven, for lack of a better way to describe it.

09. The Graveyard of the Outcast Dead ★★★★★
“So London, don’t mourn for your lovers;
Raise a glass for us glorious dead.
For beneath Southwark streets, we outlasted the priests,
And the city’s raised up on our beds.”

This is a such an amazing song, which – when I first listened to it after the podcast – made me almost tear up a bit about the unfairness of the life of these women buried there. Beautiful lyrics, performed with so much emotion once again. I love the scope of instrumentation here: acoustic guitar, mandolin, percussion, cello, piano and I’m in awe of how the sound grows and grows with each added instrument till it just blows you away in the finale. I’m an absolute sucker for those kind of songs.

10. The Lioness ★★★★☆
“She stepped off a ledge and let herself fall free,
She stepped off the train and into history.”

I had an absolute “Woah!” moment, when this song started, because I had expected a very different sound for a song about the first Egyptian feminist. Something oriental, something soft. I know, I know, biased and prejudiced about this part of the world and I’m a bit ashamed about that. Thus I’m thrilled that Frank went a completely different route and focused on the kickass-ness of Huda Sha’arawi and wrote her a killer rock song! Absolutely love it. This is another one I can see being added to the setlist on regular shows as it fits into the general energy of a Frank & the Souls gig and I’d love to sing these words out loud every once in a while.

11. The Hymn of Kassiani ★★☆☆☆
“The emperor, he tore down the icons,
The images and words thought divine,
But in the quiet of my cell I redrew them all,
And the name that I signed with was mine.”

Am I the only one who feels like the melody of this song is a reprise of “The Graveyard…”? In parts they sound quite similar to me and that throws me off quit a bit. I like the lyrics and I think they tell the story of Kassiani in a very respectable and fitting way. This now makes me sound like I knew much about her. I didn’t. Neither about the Byzantine empire. I got all my knowledge from the podcast, so thanks for that Prof. Turner. I appreciate that he included some of the typical Byzantine music which uses a different scale and thus chords to give it the right feel. Still… I don’t really find anything in this song for me.

12. Rescue Annie ★★★☆☆
“In darkened storage rooms of hospitals across the world she waits
For the missing kiss that damned her to her fate.”

I’m a bit on the fence about this one. I like the music as it’s a lovely, slow, romantic (yes) tune and I love how – once again – it musically builds up to a grand finale. I had known the basics of the story of the CPR mannequin’s face long before this song and I was curious about Frank’s take on it. From just a quick look at various pages online, it seems to me that Frank took quite a few liberties with this story and that it’s not all based on historical facts. Maybe the podcast for this song will change my opinion in that regard. And I wouldn’t really mind if he ‘rewrote’ part of the story for artistic reasons, but it still feels a bit weird, when he was trying to be historically accurate in most of the other songs here. So, not sure yet. A solid song otherwise.

13. Rosemary Jane ★★★☆☆
“I know I gave you a grey hair every time I messed up,
Each one a silver reminder that my mistakes add up.
Through every one of my unforced errors, every slip,
You never gave up,
Sweet Rosemary Jane.”

The album ends with a sweet little song for his mum. I love the sentiment and I adore him for writing it. It’s so personal, that I don’t feel comfortable commenting on any part of the lyrics to be honest. Once again I love the scope of the instrumentation, possibly because he’ll always get me with any string section. Melody or music wise though it’s not 100% my thing and I can’t really put my finger on why it doesn’t quite work for me. And to be honest I’m a bit bummed about that, because I really wanted to love this song, as it’s such personal one. I’m not quite there though, but I like it alright.

Here are more of my thoughts on Frank Turner songs

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