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Sex, drugs and gender roles: Frank Turner’s historical concept album

A discussion of 'No Man's Land', the new historical concept album from Frank Turner.

I often hope that those who attempt to play Frank Turner’s songs, on whatever instrument, struggle as much as I do. It is never really a question of the technical aspect, or rhythm, or forgetting the lyrics, but the overwhelming sense that a terrible injustice is occurring. You reach the end of the first verse (or you’ve already lost it by then), and have to witness the unending expansion of the chasm between the intended output and whatever sonic foolery has instead transpired. Any bedroom or music lesson rendition of a song from one of Turner’s eight studio albums strives in some way to replicate an energy and identity which, to even the cursory listener, is unmistakable, and for this very reason remains continually elusive. In looking through reviews of said albums, some modal descriptions appear and reappear: “intensely personal”, “sincere”, “earnest”. Whoever he may be, whatever he is saying, there seems to be a wide consensus that Turner says what he means, and sometimes problematically, means what he says. 

The latter part of this chiasmus rears its head in relevance almost exclusively in the fields of Turner’s politics and social background. The son of an investment banker, educated at Eton and grandson of a former BHS Chairman, any claims to proletarian roots or comments on the necessity of class struggle would have likely borne a short flight, before falling into accusations of hypocrisy and sceptical reflection on his upbringing. Yet, unlike many artists who inhabit the NME- jargon-styled semi-genre of “folk-punk”, Turner does not address left wing issues, or really many political talking points at all in his music. There are a few obvious exceptions from his early work (cf. ‘Thatcher Fucked the Kids’ on the EP Campfire Punkrock), but relationships, common human experiences and emotional struggle more frequently figure the subject matter of his balladry. There is a fairly simple reason for this. A lifelong Libertarian, Turner found that expressing his right wing views (collected and arranged into a suitably accusatory highlight reel here) met with nothing, but vitriol and condemnation. Commentators both musical and political, and even various Members of Parliament have jumped to deride his condemnation of the left, a leap I too feel compelled to make at times, but Turner consistently, if paradoxically, denies any engagement with the political sphere. 

As quoted in a 2012 article by his illustrious confrere in the folk scene, Billy Bragg (both a stalwart and vanguard of British protest music), Frank Turner has refused to align his self-expression with traditional definitions of political discourse. “No, it’s not [political]” he said. “It’s just me saying what I think”. Bragg himself goes on to assign this position the moniker of “post-ideological”, resistant to the vocabulary of a bygone era of cultural and counter revolution. Turner did not play on the picket lines and would therefore not stand by and watch their fading remnants divide his music from his beliefs. This is arguably a valid defence of his refusal to ‘bite’, when so often questioned about his ideological stances. Just as the anarchist movement refused to partake in the electoral politics of Billy Bragg’s youth, Turner refuses to implicate himself and his work within a discourse that he does not feel offers fitting vestments. Following in the footsteps of various artists before him, the voraciously well-read Turner tends not to chime in on the issues of the day, even if he does make broader comments that many would deem political; “There is no God…There never was no God” being perhaps the most incriminating refrain in this regard. 

Whether this is a clever and sensible extraction, or a retreat to a (conspicuously) ivory tower remains in our hands to judge. The combatant in me favours the latter, the pragmatist the former. 

However, my sophomoric attempts to perform Frank Turner’s music offer a natural illumination of another recent criticism. One that is not so easily evaded. As I mentioned in previous paragraphs, the most difficult hurdle to vault in playing Turner’s music, especially for fans and gig attendees, is the fallacy of replication. Taking the transcribed, castrated, notated husk and playing life back into sheet music is a doomed task from the start, if the endgame is some rough facsimile of a groggy Nambucca, Empire or Ally Pally- wherever you saw him last, whichever night had an energy whose half-life has aged in concert with your inclination to look up chords and tab. 

That is to say, we cannot avoid being present in the songs we play. Even if we take the roles of filters, prisms or translators, we still catch, scatter and reinterpret. The salience of this becomes clear in the discussion around No Man’s Land, Turner’s most recent album telling lesser known stories of women from throughout history, most of whom are of some cultural relevance to the artist. The 13 tracks all attempt to revitalise and reanimate the women they address, reigniting, in the folk tradition, the spirit of their music and hopefully ensuring the longevity of their stories. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Godmother to Rock and Roll in the US, Egyptian feminist pioneer Huda Shaarawi, Catherine Blake and a mass grave of London prostitutes all feature on the latest record. 

Naturally, critical voices sprung from the ranks as soon as the subject matter became public knowledge. A white, cis gendered, successful male has produced a record to broadcast the voices of those whose stories were buried, burnt and eclipsed by white, cis gendered, successful males: discussion of this fact was necessary and inevitable. 

Quick to anticipate the reaction to the album, Turner has been inviting such discussion for a while, even releasing a blog post specifically addressing the potential controversy. I am eager to emphasise the potentiality here, as genuine outrage and condemnation seems to have been fairly minimal. In fact, the online discourse surrounding the album is far more centred around hypothetical discussions of theorised intention, and the assumed inevitability of a negative response from apparently unmentionable corners of the internet’s politicised communities. Such responses themselves are relatively thin on the ground. Kudos, perhaps, to Turner’s pre-emptive firefighting, as any inflammatory reactions seem to have burnt out before vinyl hit shelf. Although, this fireless affair does seem to have choked on a smokescreen of unfavourable reviews, emphatic of nothing except the mediocrity and lack of progression the record displays. 

I would not term this a departure from the previous idiosyncrasy of earlier releases, No Man’s Landdoes bear a consistent tone (thematically and lyrically, if not musically), but it is one more of superficiality, a reluctance to engage in more than a sweeping gesture or a perfunctory mention. In this way and despite his every intention, we might say Turner’s attitude towards political engagement has migrated to his music. No Man’s Land seems evasive, with normally insightful, illuminated lyrics making way for generic balladry and innocuous nods to landmark figures. For someone who is not usually afraid of the sweat and carnage of human experiences, Turner here favours pointing at the mountain from a distance, over the long climb. 

An avid historian, having studied the subject at LSE only fifteen or so years ago, he is eager to emphasise publicly that “The record is, first and foremost, a piece of story-telling – a history record, if you will, a pretty traditional folk approach.” No Man’s Landrelates to its listeners stories that have not been and are currently not being told anywhere else. A very commendable endeavour from an artist whose charitable involvement, dedication to the industry and very public desire to foster a bright future for music in the UK lend him nothing but credibility and integrity. But we cannot ignore the response to this claim, that historical significance and the necessity of telling forgotten stories are an easy shield to raise against accusations of tokenism, understatement, and in the most extreme, exploitation.

In a manner similar to the avoidance of political labels, designating a record as ‘historical’, may be interpreted as an attempt to try and exempt oneself from the contemporary political discourse, which in this case is unlikely to have been favourable to the race and gender dynamics present in the thirteen tracks of No Man’s Land. Despite his calls for discussion, Turner has arguably protected himself from the criticism he invites. Credited with the virtue of being the sole voice sounding the memories of these women, the argument that he has usurped stories which are not his to tell, in order to fuel a messianic folk- singer persona quickly fall away. There is a little merit in these accusations, mainly as the focal point of the album does still remain Frank Turner. Despite the female instrumentalists and producer, it is clearly a Frank Turner record, whose main showcase is the singing- song writing abilities of the named artist, something some may see as putting paid to his efforts to foreground the important figures the album features. 

Such accusations may hold water in some contexts, but I take issue with their purpose and direction. The current capital focus and identity driven nature of the music industry makes any form of immortalisation nigh on impossible, save for the few artists lucky enough to habitually sell platinum. In the previous paragraph, I mention how critics may condemn Turner for centring the record on his own musical efforts, using oppressed voices as a vehicle his own career progression, but I challenge any such naysayers to find me a modern record whose sole protagonist is not the artist or group who created it. 

If fault is found with No Man’s Land, it cannot be laid at Turner’s door. As he earnestly emphasises, very little money is to be made on selling an album of this form, and much effort has been made to convey the significance of the figures discussed, as well as to highlight and support women in music: the circumstances of production seem to spell good intentions.

Redemption, an excellent track on an earlier Turner album, is nigh for the artist, but No Man’s Land does also invite structural criticism. There is some greater fault, some wider injustice at play if these are the sole conditions under which the forgotten tales of such formative and ground-breaking women can surface. As Billy Bragg said of Turner’s reluctance to politicise his work “Who can blame him?”. This question, now bearing even more significance, does well to identify the extent to which such artistic output is a product of its environment and the conditions of its creation, both in terms of the critical and popular response, and the fact that the lone voice coming in aid of these fading legacies is one so readily comparable to the forces behind their original silencing. 

This album, akin to shoddy bedroom renditions of Frank Turner’s own work, will forever offer first the creator and then the subject matter; such is the immediacy of music. This detracts from neither the ethos behind the record or the vital and necessary criticisms of cultural privilege that No Man’s Land so forcibly demands. 

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