Several albums deep into his career, English singer-songwriter Frank Turner remains fresh by turning his eye towards a particular theme per album. This time out Turner has crafted No Man’s Land, which features 13 songs that are in one way or another about a famous or not-so-famous woman of history, with some of those subjects actually encompassing a group of women and in one exception a woman who doesn’t quite exist as a woman anymore. Turner is always a reliably earthy singer, with songwriting that feels cozy and classic in the best way; with a clear focus and mission on this album, he is able to craft songs that are at the very least compelling in subject matter if not always in musical performance. Most of the songs are primarily biographical in presentation, which suits Turner’s “man in a pub who wants to spin you a yarn” musical persona, but occasionally when he steps into more abstract approaches the songs move into a more emotional and evocative realm that makes them intriguing enough to linger within you.
The subjects chosen for No Man’s Land are a fascinating group and provide a deep well of story to pull from. His selections supply a lot of the magic charm of the album, as they range from medieval poets and composers (“The Hymn of Kassiani”) to 1980s astronauts (“Silent Key”) and even to the CPR model known as “Anne” (“Rescue Annie”), and they include heroes, artists, antiheroes, family members and outright villains. This array of selection gives Turner’s album a thoughtful, more human texture and prevents it from feeling like the work of a man who has suddenly decided women have interesting stories to tell. He’s not trying to idolize these figures simply because of their gender. He gives the impression of approaching each story with a great songwriter’s curiosity about very human foibles and experiences. A lot of these women have become local myths or curiosities, or even tossed-off anecdotes or trivia of history, and here he gives each woman’s story the texture and color it deserves. Each biographical song is almost as thorough as a good Wikipedia page scouring, and at least twice as more vivid than that.
Turner begins the album with a classic English story of “Jinny Bingham’s Ghost,” with the song beginning with just his vocals coming in before the music, creating an image of Turner standing outside Bingham’s pub, still standing in Camden, and telling her story. That spirit carries us through the rest of the album, even when the songs become more produced and incorporate sounds beyond the acoustic spectrum, as in “Nica” which brings in some soft jazz elements. That song, as well as tracks such as “Sister Rosetta” and “A Perfect Wife,” indicates another fresh element of the album, which is Turner’s avoidance of matching each subject to the kind of music you would expect. “Nica” is about Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a major British proponent of bebop music, but her song does not have a trace of bebop energy. “A Perfect Wife” is about the most villainous woman on this album Nannie Doss, an American serial killer and ultimate “Black Widow,” who killed several husbands along with basically any other relatives she had, but rather than placing her story with a menacing or doom-filled sound, “A Perfect Wife” sounds closer to a plaintive ballad, and you likely would miss the darkness of the subject matter entirely if you were not listening closely. “Eye of the Day,” about World War I spy Mata Hari, is quite melancholic and subverts the usual representation of Mata Hari as a slightly exotic, dangerous seductress. Here, Turner paints her more as a woman tired of war and smart enough to know how she can survive for a while in it. All of this musical subversion is further comfort that Turner isn’t performing appreciation of these subjects, and isn’t using them for flash or kitsch appeal; rather, he is coming at each subject from a personal interest in her story and a nonjudgmental perspective. Each song is going to sound how he feels it should sound, inspired by his connection to the story at least, rather than the passed-down trite idea of each woman. Nannie Doss may seem like a monster to us, but perhaps to herself she was a figure deserving of sympathy, and so the song from her perspective works to demand that sympathy from us.
Some of Turner’s best songs here, though, come when he doesn’t have much biographical information to go off of or the information he does have has already been covered endlessly. “Silent Key” is a great example of this, as it’s “about” schoolteacher-turned-astronaut Christa McAuliffe, who perished on the 1986 Challenger. Here, rather than rehash that story we are all familiar with, Turner imagines a kind of parallel world where McAuliffe sends out one last transmission in her final moments, while she’s “still alive, still alive” and a child tinkering with a kind of HAM radio is the only one to receive it. This version of McAuliffe’s story retains the tragedy of McAuliffe’s fate while incorporating Turner’s expressed desire to focus on the achievement of McAuliffe even being able to get on that ship to begin with.
“The Graveyard of the Outcast Dead” is a similarly amorphous song, and unique in that it’s not about one woman in particular. This song is inspired by the Cross Bones cemetery in England, said to have begun as an unconsecrated graveyard for prostitutes or other “single women” without any other burial options. The song is romantic and melancholic, while subtly triumphant as the women point out that they, by remaining in this graveyard that has withstood the many decades, have “outlasted the priests” who initially denied them proper respect in death. This song also underlines another strong charm of the album, that of Turner’s ability and desire to center women who, whether because of status or just gender, were sidelined by history and did not have the ability to have their story fully and justly told.
The penultimate track “Rescue Annie” traffics in similar territory, as it’s about the anonymous young woman who provided the “L’Inconnue de la Seine.”This is a young woman who was allegedly drowned in the Parisian River Seine in the late 1880s, and whose death mask was eventually used as inspiration for the face of CPR manikin “Resusci Annie.” Here Turner imagines what really happened to this young woman, crafting a tale of romantic woe and life suddenly cut short, only to be resurrected and to live on as one of “the most kissed” faces in the world.
Finally, the album wouldn’t be complete without a personal shout out and Turner closes it with a song for his mother, “Rosemary Jane.” The song is initially too much in the realm of “man’s apology song” to be as compelling as the other tracks, but upon learning that it is a genuine song from a son to his mother, that becomes more acceptable. There are very few men out there who shouldn’t be apologizing to their mother on a semi-regular basis.
Clearly, if this theme and subject matter is remotely interesting to you—as it is to me—you will find lots to think about with this album. If you’re a fan of Turner’s musical voice, and his earthy and direct songwriting, there is a lot of that here to make each song—even ones that aren’t immediate “grabbers”—an amiable listen. This is a classic kind of songwriter’s album, with the focus just as much, if not more, on story than on any musical bag of tricks, and it’s a refreshing reminder of what a gifted storyteller can do when given a compelling subject.