English singer/songwriter Frank Turner was wise enough to anticipate the heat he might get for delivering No Man's Land, an album of original songs based on the lives of historic women. Produced by Catherine Marks and performed by a crack band of all-female musicians, Turner also recorded a 13-episode podcast corresponding to each of his songs' subjects; he's also written a blog post about his motivations. While his attendant media and perceived apologia seem, on the surface, to amount to self-justification, as an artist he can write about who and what he wants and let the critical chips fall where they may.
"Jinny Bingham's Ghost" is a galloping folk-punk tune that revives the legend about an abused 17th century landlady who poisoned and cooked male perpetrators and was ultimately condemned as a witch. Turner connects the tale to the rock & roll dive bar on the site of her tavern and its current role as "a sanctuary for all broken boys and girls." The jangly, hook-laden rock single "Sister Rosetta" is a tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the legendary blues and gospel guitarist and singer who pre-figured rock & roll and influenced everyone from Chuck Berry and Little Richard to Johnny Cash and Elvis. The Celtic folk-rock of "I Believed You, William Blake" is perceived through wife Catherine Blake's eyes. She took an active role in the production of his engravings and illuminated books, ran the household finances, and offered foundational support. Via Turner's account, Mrs. Blake righteously claims the poet's debt to her belief in him when society thought him mad. The lithe "Nica," complete with ragtime horn charts, is inspired by jazz patron and baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter (née Rothschild), a fierce French Resistance fighter who also used her wealth and influence to promote jazz during the bebop era; later she cared for Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk at the end of their lives. "A Perfect Wife," a lovely folk waltz, is an account (first person) from Nannie Doss, the American serial killer who took the lives of 11 men who abused her. Musically, "Silent Key," about the last moments in the life of teacher and astronaut Krista McAuliffe, is arguably the loveliest tune on the set, with parlor strings, acoustic guitars, and a female backing chorus. The set's anthem is "The Lioness," a tribute to 20th century Egyptian proto-feminist Huda Sha'arawi. The set closes with "Rosemary Jane," a tribute to Turner's mother. It's the other side of the coin to 2007's excoriating "Father’s Day" and places him on the side of the family matriarch and his sisters. While the male gaze is undeniable, Turner acknowledges it openly and it doesn't overshadow the lyrical and musical qualities in these songs themselves. He tells these stories (many of them dark and tragic) with empathy, tenderness, and a desire to illuminate curiosity about his subjects, making No Man's Land a welcome addition to Turner's catalog.