Lankum’s 2017 debut for Rough Trade made a strong case for a band with definite intent about reforging tradition, mixing new ideas into the musty jars of heritage and happily disrupting that which is obsessively squirrelled away from heathens who believe in progress. Perhaps erring on the side of caution, BETWEEN THE EARTH AND SKY was a record that dipped its toe into sonic experimentation rather than taking a blind leap of faith.
THE LIVELONG DAY is something very different…
At the recent launch gig for this album in Vicar Street, there was a perceptible undertone of nervousness – Doubtful at this point to simply be the gawking eyes of a hometown crowd as much as the realisation that a shift has taken place in the band’s sound and this now needed to be presented to a hard earned audience, a percentage of which may not appreciate the unorthodoxy and/or cacophony of it all.
Lankum has definitely stepped out of its former self into an uncertain world and this is reflected in an overhaul of presentation. In the lead-up to the album, one image concession toward genre tradition was a promotional photo of the band standing sternum-deep in the ferns looking purposeful, hoodwinking general anticipation with a splash of chlorophyll. But this package takes it all elsewhere – Gone is the expected Glyn Smith cover illustration, replaced with something simple but ominous – a stark reddish rocky outcrop encroached by wild black scrub and contrasted against a durably bleak skyline. The effect is wonderful – screen-printed rough and tactile with a vaguely detectable but sinister energy.
What is immediately apparent sonically is that THE LIVELONG DAY hasn’t held back on immersing itself. 8 tracks over a 57-minute running time can either mean that the music is taking some deep dives, or it’s business as usual plus some 40 verse shanty composed by a long dead toothless crone – and the later is hardly conducive to selling out Vicar Street when our attention spans are digitally afflicted mush.
These 8 tracks span 4 sides of a double vinyl album, and it is only really when I approached everything from this listening experience (rather than digitally) that the trajectory and track order made complete sense, as if it had been designed for this format first.
WILD ROVER as it’s widely recognised now is somewhat of an idiot anthem of Irish culture – retarded Celtic bravado, global Irish pub vomitus and whatever sub-metal abomination Cruachan shat out – sentimentally caterwauled to extol the plastic-paddy virtues of excess when its original message is anything but. There isn’t really any avoiding of the fact that a lamentation of squandering and recklessness would find its own life out in the world, but the core material has several respectful deviations – The approach taken here is one that often makes a point of differentiating itself as WILD ROVING or WILD ROVING NO MORE. Lankum’s masterful arrangement of this slowly transitions through a subtle groundswell of vocal harmonies and droning instrumentation into a flood of noise as the track consolidates its bleak mood. And a simple but effective video echoes the imagery of the album cover with additional ominous flutters of psychedelic distortion and unseen horrors lurking in the ferns (with a possible droplet of Midsommar to compound matters!). This is essentially a bad trip on Bray head, wherever it was filmed.
A reticence to spell out the message of THE YOUNG PEOPLE is unsurprising – Although some context and the dream-weaving origin of the track accompanied the launch of the video prior to the album’s release, any sleeve notes are given a wide berth, and the song is represented instead by one line of lyrics – “Fly on your wings like an eagle”. Despite its harrowing theme, this contains the album’s undoubted earworm in the wonderful chorus, with a 3-minute cycle of repetition that doesn’t remotely approach overkill. And that any group of musicians can flip a subject this despondent from folkish anguish and ominous surges of sound into something uplifting within 7 minutes is profound.
ODE TO LULLABY initially seems like an interlude, a flavour of something insistent on unfolding minimal not matter how it was worked, but there’s more to it. The track’s disquieting undulations are met with a tempered and ebbing pulse – These elements should be at odds with the notion of what this album is assumed to be, but instead they serve to channel its sense of cataclysm by stealth, exploring the leftfield of traditional instrumentation in the process. The result comes across like a pastoral passage of sound that might have appeared on a Wümme era Faust recording between two pieces of unlistenable clanging glory.
This runs into BEAR CREEK, a fiddle tune and the album’s sole “knees-up” moment. Interestingly, there’s an extra percussive suggestion in this recording as if the capture of the instruments’ inhalations, creaks and incidental mechanics are as vital to the production as melody and resonance. Whether or not this purposely taps into that accidental quality is open to question but I like the man-machine quality of it all.
Typically subject to an upbeat folk or bluegrass treatment, KATIE CRUEL has a long history, sometimes delivered with the raw passion it demands and others with a twee dollop of diddle-eye-day. No such dainty piffle here – Via the Karen Dalton rendition, Lankum’s take is a remarkable Nico-drenched dirge based around harmonium and vocal. For the trainspotters, this version can be traced back to a performance of Rue (featuring Radie Peat & Cormac Mac Diarmada) on transient music programme This Ain’t No Disco in 2016, so it’s no major surprise that it has bled into the Lankum repertoire.
THE DARK EYED GYPSY is plucked from somewhere along the same historical stem as GYPSY LADDIE, THE RAGGLE TAGGLE GYPSY, BLACK JACK DAVY and others, but oral tradition and time has rendered byproducts of whatever the original source was very different, resulting in a dizzying number of interpretations. This version is led by dual lead vocals with slow, minimal instrumentation. There are lengthy sleeve notes on this track in the accompanying booklet “Stories Of The Songs” although I think this might have been a pre-order only item.
Probably the finest example of this album’s willfully disruptive nature is an outstanding take on THE PRIDE OF PETRAVORE. Loosely rummaging for it’s own rhythm on the build-up, this expands into a scuffed and rusted stomp and maintains a haphazard glory like incidental music for a parade of troglodytes stomping through the undergrowth of sleep paralysis. Sometimes it takes all sorts of wrong to bring this sort of creative clarity to a piece of music.
The title of the album comes from the lyrics of HUNTING THE WREN, an original composition about a 19th century community of female social outcasts who lived in nest-like debris shelters on the Curragh and the dangers they faced. Carried by an incredible lead vocal, underplayed backing and a flogging beat, it’s a vignette of inescapable sorrow, cold, violence and far from a peaceful ending to this collection of tracks.
The final notes of the album fade but there’s something powerful in the capacity of this music to resonate long after it’s over. For material so predominantly downbeat, this is unusual. Previously, Lankum has alternated the mood of its output, but THE LIVELONG DAY has no place for buoyant street songs or shanties. This direction is heavily focused on curating, composing and arranging towards a very specific temperament – drenched, foreboding and dystopian – playing to Lankum’s collective talents extremely successfully.
And while prevailing sense of hopelessness in the real world can be read from the overall tone here in the same way that it might have fed into the music, this is first and foremost an artistic statement for its own sake and not a political period piece. With that out of the way, the THE LIVELONG DAY is Lankum taking a divergent stride forward through an indeterminate folkish landscape, confidently interweaving provocative experimentation and sonic tradition.
What’s ultimately fulfilling about the album isn’t immediate, nor should it be, but it’s present in very generous quantities.