Frank Turner got his start as the vocalist of Million Dead, before embarking on a solo career in 2005. Since then he’s released seven studio albums, most recently 2018’s Be More Kind, which hit number three on the UK album charts. Now he’s back with his most ambitious project to date, No Man’s Land, an album focusing on forgotten women’s stories from across history, recorded with an all-female cast of musicians and produced by Catherine Marks.
The album opens with Jinny Bingham’s Ghost, telling the story of a 17th century landlady from Camden Town. It starts with the sound of waves before bursting into rattling acoustic guitar. Turner absolutely crams every detail of Jinny’s story into the song, at times almost feeling like he’s racing to get it all out, and the sheer amount of information builds up a vivid picture of Jinny which makes it incredibly easy to warm to her. As the song comes to a close the layers of instruments build up and Turner’s voice takes on more of an edge as he belts out the lyrics, before dropping away and then going back to a big final chorus. It’s a high-energy start to the record and definitely sets the tone for the next 12 tracks.
One thing which particularly struck me about the album was how Turner adapted the styles of the songs to each woman’s time period. Lead single Sister Rosetta is a lively toe-tapping tune with a shuffling rhythm and plenty of twang, echoing her status as ‘godmother of rock and roll’, whilst Nica’s horns and flowing, freeform lyrics hark back to the jazz age characters like Charlie Parker that pop up in the song. That said, there are also tracks where the musical style is completely unexpected, such as The Lioness, which focuses on Egyptian feminist activist Huda Sha’araw. It’s a driving, classic rock-influenced song featuring classic poetry references, which sees Turner delivering the rapid-fire lyrics in growly tones and with a fists-in-the-air defiance that’s going to sound absolutely brilliant live.
I also really liked how Turner digs into the aspects of these women’s stories that many of us might not know so much about. The lush, heartstring-tugging Silent Key, about the Challenger disaster, hones in on the signal from Christa McAuliffe’s radio being picked up in an attic in Hampshire, whilst the twangy yet gentle Eye Of The Day tells the story of WWI spy Mata Hari, adding in details that create a moving, vivid portrait and reveal more than the popular image of her as a seductress, particularly in the powerful a capella section towards the end.
Similarly, even the women who are connected to famous men get the opportunity to take centre stage. I Believed You, William Blake, told from the perspective of his wife Catherine, pairs an atmospheric, spiky melody with biting lyrics and a great twist at the end, whilst the lingering The Hymn Of Kassiani showcases her confidence and fearlessness through sneering vocals that build to a shout over a sitar sound that reminds me of later Beatles records. The stripped-back approach and straightforward delivery Turner uses on the latter song – and many others on the album – puts the emphasis firmly on the women’s stories throughout and it’s impossible not to find yourself being drawn in.
One of my favourite tracks on the album is The Death Of Dora Hand. Telling the story of a vaudeville star and dancer, it’s an uptempo, rollicking song which sees Turner singing in full voice, before things take a dramatic turn with sharp, jagged chords. I loved the celebratory, joyous feel of it and the narrative is straight out of a classic Western. Other highlights for me included the jangly A Perfect Wife, with its carefree, tongue-in-cheek vibe making this tale of a lonely hearts serial killer feel highly unsettling, the stark yet oddly romantic The Graveyard Of The Outcast Dead with its barroom waltz rhythm and social issues that feel as relevant now as 150 years ago, and the touching, piano-led Rescue Annie, which sees Turner’s rich vocals soaring as he relays the ultimately uplifting story of the woman who inspired the medical CPR mannequin.
The final song on the record is Rosemary Jane, a song Turner wrote about his mum. It’s a midtempo, simple acoustic track that’s full of warmth and affection, built up with the layered strings throughout. You really feel the sense of gratitude, love and respect Turner has for his mum as he realises the hardships she went through when he was younger, and it’s a heartfelt and positive note to end the album on.
Overall I absolutely loved No Man’s Land. It showcases Turner’s incredible skill as a songwriter and is full of so many different styles and influences, which all work brilliantly together to tell the fascinating stories of the women who feature in the songs and bring them to life. ‘Don’t let her be forgotten’, Turner sings on Sister Rosetta, and after listening to this record I think it’s safe to say we won’t. Now I’m off to Underworld to raise a toast to Jinny…
Track listing: 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 Record label: Xtra Mile Recording/Polydor Records Release date: 16th August 2019
See Frank Turner live in the UK in 2019:
22 August – Cottingham Folk Festival, Cottingham
23 August – Pryzm, Kingston-upon-Thames
24 August – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
25 August – Greenbelt Festival, Kettering
25 September – Wedgwood Rooms, Portsmouth (with S. T. Manville)
22 November – Alhambra Theatre, Dunfermline
24 November – St David’s Hall, Cardiff
25 November – Guildhall, Southampton
26 November – Opera House, Manchester
27 November – City Hall, Newcastle
29 November – De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea
30 November – Alexandra Palace, London (SOLD OUT)
01 December – Symphony Hall, Birmingham
03 December – Alexandra Palace, London (SOLD OUT)