Album Review: False Lankum // Lankum

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False Lankum, the fourth studio album by Irish quartet Lankum, was released to widespread critical acclaim in 2023. On the one-year anniversary of its launch under Rough Trade Records, we celebrate the innovative and influential album and explore its ongoing impact.

False Lankum opens in reserved fashion with the solo voice of Radie Peat, ringing out with incredible clarity on the album’s first track, ‘Go Dig My Grave’. To the uninitiated listener, it might at first seem that this will be a fairly straightforward traditional folk album; however, the sparse instrumentation soon gives a hint of something unusual, and by halfway the ‘Go Dig My Grave’ grows to reach a climactic note so alarming and sinister that making it to the end of the track suddenly feels like a significant challenge.

The track is a modern take on the folk song known as ‘The Butcher Boy’, or ‘The Railroad Boy’, as it has appeared in American tradition. Describing the story of a young woman forsaken by her lover (in this version, the railroad boy), the song follows her through the betrayal, her subsequent suicide, and her discovery by her father, who finds the note she left detailing burial instructions. The title of Lankum’s version is derived from the young woman’s final message: “Go dig my grave/Both wide and deep/Place a marble stone/At my head and feet”, it commands beyond the grave. Unlike previous versions of this traditional song by well-known folk figures such as The Clancy Brothers, Tommy Makem, and, more recently, the contemporary Irish group The Mary Wallopers, Lankum’s unforgiving delivery, stripped of the sentimentality of typical folk guitar and punctuated by gong-like sounds that function like ominous warnings, offers almost no consolation at all to distressed listeners.

Fans of Lankum will be well-acquainted with such depressing subject material. Comprised of multi-instrumentalists Cormac MacDiarmada, Radie Peat and brothers Ian and Daragh Lynch, Lankum’s 2019 album The Livelong Day explored exploitation and violence in ‘Hunting the Wren’, which alludes to the Wrens of the Curragh (a nineteenth-century community of Irish women outcast from ‘respectable society’), while their most popular track, ‘The Wild Rover’, reshaped the classic pub singalong into a Gothic tale of regret and poverty. Produced with the assistance of sound engineer John “Spud” Murphy, The Livelong Day marked a key step in the expansion of the band’s sound.

However, False Lankum is an album of more pronounced contrast than its predecessors. During recording, the quartet stayed in a Martello tower on Ireland’s eastern coast, and the influence feels palpable – like the sea, False Lankum stretches out expansively before the listener, in some moments extraordinarily heavy and intense, and in others light and tender. The album is the result of years of experimentation and growth (Lankum have been making music together since 2014, originally under the name Lynched), and it launched its creators to unprecedented success. False Lankum was the first folk album to be nominated (and subsequently shortlisted) for the Mercury Prize in 11 years; it was also awarded first place in end-of-year album rankings by The Quietus, The Guardian and Uncut, and was third place in Mojo’s 75 Best Albums of 2023. Since then, the quartet have been playing to increasingly enamoured audiences, including a 3,300-capacity gig at the Roundhouse, London last December.

False Lankum, for many listeners, will feel notably absent of the ‘cosiness’ that generally pervades folk music, both traditional and contemporary. Indeed, many of the darker elements of the album are enough to make most recent contributions to the folk cannon sound twee. The quartet employ a striking array of instruments to unusual effect (according to Ian Lynch, Lankum play about 30 instruments between them, including the hurdy-gurdy, the concertina, uilleann pipes, and a tape machine), and several traditional folk songs are given a new, doom-laden form. In Lankum’s hands, ‘Master Crowley’s’ is a singularly unnerving traditional Irish jig, while ‘The New York Trader’ (which can be traced back to the lyrics of ‘The Pirate’, a ballad popular in the UK in the 19th century) tells the story of a tormented ship’s crew in suitably calamitous fashion. ‘Fugues’ I, II and III, likewise occupy the thrumming darkness at the heavier end of Lankum’s sonic spectrum.

However, False Lankum is just as affecting in its lighter moments, which lend it much of its famed contrast, as well as some accessibility. The album features two original songs, both written by Daragh Lynch. ‘Netta Perseus’ is lyrically cryptic, drawing on both natural and supernatural imagery, while the contemplative and hypnotic ‘The Turn’, deals with themes of hope and mourning. These moments feel distilled and clear, which ultimately results in a poignancy that is all the more potent for being so original. It seems likely that this startling contrast lies at the root of the album’s astounding success.

In addition to its rich polarity, False Lankum is also formidable in its reverence for, and deep engagement with, the folk music tradition to which it owes so much. Though impressive, it is perhaps not a surprising output for a band so intimately linked to Dublin’s traditional music scene. It has been noted by critics that False Lankum’s original source material spans nearly five centuries, beginning with the warm and emotive 17th century ballad ‘Newcastle’, the tune of which was first published in ‘The English Dancing Master’ (1651). The lyrics, however, can be dated even earlier, to a broadside ballad printed in 1620 entitled “The contented Couckould, Or a pleasant new Songe of a New-Castle man whose wife being gon from him, shewing how he came to London to her, & when he found her carried her backe againe to New-Castle Towne.” The song, in which Peat’s fragile voice describes a story of forgiveness and enduring love in the face of adversity, is one of the album’s highlights. Similarly, the harmonies of ‘Lord Abore and Mary Flynn’ (a rearrangement of a Scottish ballad that marks the vocal debut of MacDiarmada, alongside Peat) are sweet and light, though darkness is never far below the surface: the lyrics tell the story of a mother who critically poisons her son due to her hatred of his girlfriend (who then also dies promptly, though fortunately by her lover’s side). “Oh why, oh why, dear Mother…/Have you poisoned me full sore?” Lord Abore rightly asks, and some listeners might likewise be wondering whether the album’s preoccupation with death and catastrophe is not slightly excessive. But doubters need not fear: False Lankum’s more depressing moments, however intense, feel ephemeral. The textural, dream-like quality of the album will soon carry you into more hopeful waters.

Through their imaginative reinventions of traditional folk music, Lankum reached new highs of creativity and vision in False Lankum. Arresting and anomalous, the album succeeds in sounding simultaneously ancient and strikingly modern, and in its extremes it explores territory largely uncharted in modern folk music. Lankum are undoubtedly one of the most promising musical acts around today; we can only wait in anticipation for what they do next.

Words by Naomi Rescorla-Brown


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