Thursday, August 29, 2019

album review: 'no man's land' by frank turner

Am I the only one who feels like Frank Turner can't really win these days to save his life?

And yes, I'm fully aware that a chunk of that statement comes from me being a fan of the guy - hell, I was actually kinder to his 2018 album Be More Kind than pretty much everyone, a project balanced on the precipice of hopepunk and existential emptiness that sadly didn't have nearly as much of an edge as it really needs to secure that balance - there was a wonky stiffness and cleanness to his production and delivery that really hampered that project as a whole. But throughout the majority of the 2010s it's been hard for me to shake the feeling that for as much as Turner is trying desperately to do the right thing artistically, he's either stuck chasing past glories or is facing an increasingly unpleasable audience with sky-high expectations - most of the time both. And while I've been feeling this to some extent since at least Tape Deck Heart, it really came to bear with the backlash to Be More Kind, where Turner was trying to provide hope both to his audience and himself and it didn't seem like he pleased either... mostly because with the exception of the furious and potent '1933', the songs themselves were not his strongest by a long shot.

So I had to hope that No Man's Land would click this time - but again, it did seem like Turner was setting himself up to fail. A folk rock project full of songs celebrating the famous and forgotten women of history on the surface seemed like a winning idea, especially in this climate with his recruitment of plenty of women behind the scenes, but a more cynical 'progressive' audience already seemed to have their pitchforks on standby for his audacity to tell those stories - hell, from what I can tell the backlash to this was even stronger than to Be More Kind, it's his worst-reviewed project to date! So yeah, I was expecting the worst with this... and yet how was No Man's Land?

These are always some of the toughest albums to review - and no, not just because it's a Frank Turner album and I'm a fan and somehow he's going to find a way to yank my heartstrings regardless, although that's a factor I might as well admit right now. No, this is a case of the right intentions and a few inspired, damn near transcendent ideas married to some of his best songs in years, maybe even in his entire career... placed alongside ideas that are misfires, missteps, or simply just demanded additional thought to really work. And while I want to lean into calling this a great album simply on the benefit of the best moments alone, this might wind up being one of my most critical and biting commentaries on an album I'm still inclined to recommend!

And again, this is one of those cases where we have to start with the content because it's the primary focus of Frank Turner returning to a folk sound and is easily the most contentious part of the album. And let me begin with a loaded qualifier: even in this political climate, I'm okay with Frank Turner writing an album celebrating famous or forgotten women, and while some of their names might be more remembered - there have been plenty of songs written about Sister Rosetta Tharpe before, although I do think Frank's is one of the better ones I've heard in a while - he was definitely trying to think outside the box with this. And in fact, I'll actually go one further: I actually have less-than-zero problem with him tackling historical women who have messy or even murderous pasts - going back as far as White Lung's masterful 2016 project Paradise, the divorcing of conventional morality from feminist discourse can lead to fascinating conversations of what women might do as recompense for being brutalized in a patriarchal society. And Frank Turner does take us to that brink with stories like with 'Jinny Bingham's Ghost' and 'A Perfect Wife', the latter telling the story of Nannie Doss, who kept killing her partners when they didn't meet her standards. It's a chilling choice to then frame her narrative as possibly even romantic or sympathetic, especially given she shows no real remorse, and even if you still think she deserves to face consequences - which, yes, she did - it raises the question of how societal expectations can warp someone. Hell, I'm not sure I'd want Frank Turner to put every woman in his stories on a pedestal without showing flaws or failings, in that case he'd deserve all the accusations of being patronizing or co-opting their stories...

But that's not saying he evades that criticism entirely, and it comes through both in the writing and execution of a few of these pieces. And let's start with the former: Frank, if you knew you were going to face accusations of co-opting these stories, maybe it would have been a good idea to not write them from a first person perspective! I get trying to speak from their perspective to present a more complex and humanized picture, but this is absolutely a place where if you wanted to do this, you could have brought up female singers to work with you and embody those parts. Hell, not only did both The National and Vampire Weekend do this on their albums this year when they wanted that uniquely feminine perspective, you did some of it yourself on Positive Songs For Negative People with the song 'Silent Key', which you re-recorded for this album and took out Esme Patterson - a shame, because I might actually like this arrangement more and she would have been perfect for it! But no, the first-person narrative on 'I Believed You, William Blake', 'A Perfect Wife', 'The Hymn Of Kassiani', even the excellently written standouts of 'Eye Of The Day' and 'The Graveyard Of The Outcast Dead' places your voice in telling those stories over theirs, and it leads to the second messy misstep: even if you're not placing women on pedestals entirely, a whole lot of them wind up dead in these stories! Again, not inherently a problem, especially when it frames heroism or nurturing protection for those in need, a side of femininity that Frank Turner realizes to excellent effect, but when a solid third of the album focuses the narrative of these women on their deaths, it can hit an awkward note. And nowhere does that awkwardness translate more than 'Rescue Annie', telling the story of a forgotten woman whose face and model a doctor turned into that of rescue dummies that lifeguards and first aid trainers use, which on the surface is a "cute" story for how one woman's death taught people how to save countless lives... but if you've got a song that literally translates a woman's agency into an inanimate object on your stridently feminist tract, it's utterly jarring! And here's what's the most annoying - between the obsession with death and the first person storytelling, Frank Turner does have moments that knock it out of the park, with the best being the fantastic Christmas morning anthem of 'The Graveyard of the Outcast Dead' setting the birth of London, and following it with 'The Lioness' and its elevation of Egyptian pioneering feminist Huda Sha'awari is a stellar one-two punch, even if it does retread some similar ground to 'Jinny Bingham's Ghost'. And when Frank Turner interweaves these narratives with musical history the stories are rich and textured, from 'Sister Rosetta' to 'Nica', telling the story of a Rothschild heir who sacrificed her fame to boost jazz icons, to even 'The Death Of Dora Hand', a nice sad tune about a famed singer's accidental death in the 1800s. And it might have been the expected play, but Frank Turner ending the album with a straightforward acoustic song celebrating his mother was a really beautiful touch - predictable but great way to end the project.

Of course, the other side to this entire conversation is the actual music on display, where like with Be More Kind I have to restate what should be obvious at this point: the closer that Frank Turner stays to his abrasive, shouty, folk punk sound with an uncanny knack for huge hooks, the better his material tends to be. But once again I get the feeling there's a weird tug-a-war going on across much of No Man's Land between the more ragged folk rock for which he excels and stands out... and the more stately, reserved, polished and sedate adult alternative with more lush instrumentals but also feel far less interesting, mostly because Frank's earnest singing just doesn't have the same intensity or character. Sure, I get why there's a sandy, jazzy vibe on 'Nica' complete with horns, it fits the subject matter, but you can't tell me it stirs the soul in the same way the acoustic-driven crescendos, strings, and jingling bells of 'The Graveyard Of The Outcast Dead' does, or the ragged groove scything through 'The Lioness', or the fast-picked gallop of 'Jinny Bingham's Ghost' - hell, I'll even take the brighter if a shade conventional folk rock of 'Sister Rosetta' and accordion-and-organ touched 'The Death Of Dora Hand'! And I'm also not including songs as stripped back and barren as 'Eye Of The Day' or the first half of 'Rosemary Jane' before the swells of strings come in - there's a homespun, ragged yearning that makes sense there, which is a similar defense of the jagged buzz that punches up the strings groove on the back half of 'Silent Key'. But then you have the weird off-key post-chorus melody that squonks through 'A Perfect Wife', and then Frank attempting a middle-eastern-inspired vocal line on 'The Hymn Of Kassiani', and it just feels awkward - no, not even that, it feels half-hearted, an experimental flourish that he just can't sell as effectively as he wants. And they're not even bad compositions so much as they leave me with the lingering impression if he had a collaborator who could match his intensity, they could work - don't get me wrong, Mary Beard's backing vocals are there, but she's not micced in a way to really support him. Or maybe it's a production issue - I certainly think Catherine Marks' mix has greater warmth and texture than what Butch Walker gave him, but Walker gave Frank a much richer backing chorus.

And that's the frustrating thing: from what I understand Frank Turner has the backing connections that if he wanted to rope in female collaborators to help him tell these stories instead of working behind and adjacent to him, he could have leveraged that network. But No Man's Land doesn't really do this and you can tell he's kind of tentative about it - by the final track he's questioning his place and seems to have been left with more questions than answers - and as such the album does feel compromised. And yet on the strength of some of these songs I have to say it's better than Be More Kind because a little more texture and firepower has leaked in and there are fewer missteps... providing, of course, you don't believe the entire album is a mistake, which I know many do! And that leaves me at a weird crossroads - an incredibly uneven project balanced between real missteps and some of the best of Frank Turner's career, songs made with ambition and the best of intentions but working more on the strength of Turner's energy than composition alone... and yet the best of this album will probably wind among my top 50 songs of 2019! And thus, with the dozen-plus listens I've given this album, it's getting an extremely strong 7/10 - probably the most critical review I've given to a project scored this highly, but the best moments are truly worth it. In the mean time... look, it's a curiosity and I expect it to be considered at best an outlier in Frank's discography. But it's not a failure, and when one of the good guys makes it work this far, I'll take it.

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