On Aug. 16, English folk rock musician Frank Turner released his eighth studio album, No Man’s Land, a concept album detailing the lives of women overlooked by history. At the same time, he has been releasing weekly episodes of a podcast titled Tales From No Man's Land, which gives a historical account of the women included in the album.
Some tracks, like opener “Jinny Bingham’s Ghost,” make the subject immediately obvious, while “A Perfect Wife” reads differently once you realize that the narrator is Nannie Doss, who was convicted of eight murders in 1955, including those of four of her husbands. Separate from the lyrical and musical content of the album, discussion around No Man’s Land has centered around one question: what right does Turner, a cisgender man, have to write an album about the female experience?
Roisin O’Connor of The Independent eviscerated the album on the basis of its premise. O’Connor labeled No Man’s Land “a case of extreme mansplaining” and questioned just how "forgotten" some of these subjects were. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the titular subject of the second track, has been called “the godmother of rock and roll” and was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In Will Richard's review for NME he asserts that Turner’s voice overshadows those of the women whose narratives he attempts to tell.
Turner anticipated the controversy with a blog post titled “Thoughts on No Man’s Land,” wherein he acknowledges that he is a man writing about the experiences of thirteen women, sometimes in the first person. He also states that, while “there is a political angle to the record,” presenting it as “an aggressively feminist statement” would “seem overbearing.” He simply sought to write songs that no one else was writing, and that he was interested in.
Although the vocals and lyrics are all Turner, women were involved in the production of No Man’s Land: Catherine Marks produced the album, and all instrumentation was provided by female musicians. While this, along with Turner opening himself to constructive criticism within the blog post, indicates an awareness of the implications of the album and a desire to do better, one wonders if there is a happier medium between Turner’s vision and his position as a man making a record about women.
Concept albums are often an opportunity for an artist to bring in friends and feature their vocal contributions. Razia’s Shadow, by post–hardcore outfit Forgive Durden, for instance, featured vocals from Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco, Casey Crescenzo of The Dear Hunter, and other friends of frontman Thomas Dutton.
When Hadestown was not a Broadway musical but an Anaïs Mitchell album, artists like Ani DiFranco and Justin Vernon lent their voices to Persephone and Orpheus. Even American Idiot featured Kathleen Hanna in the opening of “Letterbomb.” A version of No Man’s Land with performances by Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! or singer–songwriter Grace Petrie may have made the album, especially the first–person tracks, more authentic.
As a Frank Turner album, No Man’s Land is par for the course. His vocals are acoustically pleasing but somewhat limited in range, sticking close to the trademark sound he’s been developing since 2007’s Sleep is for the Week, and while the tracks range from the rollicking folk rock of “Jinny Bingham’s Ghost” to the stripped–down “The Hymn of Kassiani,” he never strays too far from his comfort zone. As a concept album, it is enjoyable, with a clear link among all the songs. As a political statement, it lacks a proper roar from a female voice.