Review : No Man’s Land by Frank Turner

Earlier in the week, the Advertising Standards Authority banned its first ads for contravening UK gender stereotyping rules.

One of those ads for Philadelphia, the Mondelez-owned cream cheese brand, showed two new dads eating lunch at one of those restaurants where food circulates on a conveyor belt, which I’ve never been to myself cause I can’t figure out how they work! While chatting they accidentally find their babies are whisked away on said conveyor. “Let’s not tell mum,” one of them says.

Complainants said the tongue-in-cheek ad perpetuated a harmful stereotype suggesting men were incapable of caring for children and would put them at risk as a result of their incompetence.  Philadelphia weren’t overly impressed, saying that they chose to use two dads so as not to perpetuate the stereotype of women handling child caring responsibilities.  The ASA said that it perpetuated the stereotype of bumbling dads.

I think what this goes to show is that when it comes to a protected characteristic, there’s always someone who will find an issue, especially in a snowflake society where there is an entitlement to take offence and where that offence tends to come from overthinking.

Frank Turner’s new album is titled No Man’s Land, and features 13 songs about women who he thinks you need to know more about (including one about Frank’s Mum).

I didn’t want to like this album.  I’ve loved Frank Turner’s music since I accidentally found him on a side stage at Leeds Festival over a decade ago.  I’ve loved his live shows for the energy from him and also for the atmosphere.  Recently at shows, though, as much as I’ve loved the music, there are some monologues about charities that are being supported and equality and women’s safety that, while important topics, I’ve never really believed should have such a prominent place at a concert.  I also see a slight irony in calls for acceptance and understanding from someone who just sang a song called There Is No God.

When I knew what this album was about, I did think it was being positioned as a political statement.  Part of me still thinks it is – there’s too much emphasis on production by women and that session musicians used on the album are women and Turner himself has called it a concept album.  Many of the reviews I’ve read have chosen to stick with this thought.  Many criticise the mansplaining, others about what right a man has to sing about women at all and others criticise the presumption that these women aren’t already well known.

If this is a problem, it’s to do with Frank Turner’s literal song writing.  Listening to the supporting podcast documentaries (especially the one about Sister Rosetta Tharpe), the lyrics are explained – Turner has tried to put Tharpe’s song titles in to his own song and he talks about other clever little references.  To some, maybe even to most, it’s clever.  But could it be cleverer?

My thought as I was listening, though, was whether he could have used his subject matter either less literally or as a metaphor.  Take my favourite song off the album called Rescue Annie about the 16 year old girl who drowned in the Seine and whose face became that of the CPR doll.  She went from never having been kissed to having the most kissed face in history.  The verses are classic storytelling, but the choruses are far more metaphorical in stating the importance of the story.  It’s not as obvious.

In comparison, album opener Jinny Bingham’s Ghost doesn’t appear to have any deeper meaning.  It’s a telling of a story, and it reminds me of this album’s version of Love and Ire Song‘s I Knew Prufrock Before He Was Famous (but not as good because it doesn’t go further than the story).  In that sense, it feels like each song could probably go on any album individually and the critique would be on the songwriting and the musicianship rather than the subject matter.

This isn’t the best Frank Turner album, but he is also one of those artists where I very rarely like an album on its release.  They get better after I’ve seen them live and had chance to listen and understand and appreciate.  Here, the chorus to Sister Rosetta reminds me of Stacey’s Mom by Fountains of Wayne.  I still don’t understand the need to put a new version of Silent Key halfway down the album’s track listing.  There’s not a lot of original stuff, but that doesn’t always matter.

It’s a shame that we live in a time where this album, much like the Philadelphia advert, is an opportunity to be offended.  At one end of the scale, this is someone singing songs they’ve written about people with interesting and inspirational stories.  At the other end, it’s the oppressive patriarchy getting involved in a subject that they shouldn’t do because it’s up to women to empower women and how dare a man feel the need to walk in to that territory.

It’s a shame that it’s also a no win situation.  If a man in a male dominated industry tries to draw attention to women with interesting and inspirational stories he gets criticised, but if a man in a male dominated industry doesn’t touch upon the subject, then he can get criticised for not highlighting issues.

The biggest shame is that this is how the album is being reviewed because, after a slow start, it’s a pretty decent collection of songs.

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