The Livelong Day is Lankum’s boldest statement yet.
Lankum, an Irish folk quartet formed by brothers Ian and Daragh Lynch in the early 2000s, have reincarnated themselves several times over until settling on their current lineup of the brothers Lynch, Cormac MacDiarmada and Radie Peat, both of whom joined in 2012. Previously known as Lynched, the group’s album Cold Old Fire earned critical acclaim and the opportunity to expand their audience on the widely followed BBC music showcase “Later… with Jools Holland.” Their sound is marked by distinctive four-part vocal harmonies with arrangements of uilleann pipes, concertina, Russian accordion, fiddle and guitar and their oeuvre includes Dublin humour, Traveller ballads, traditional Irish and American songs and original material.
Even with the knowledge of the diversity of Lankum’s wide range of influences (pretty much everything from Irish folk to American old-timey music, krautrock, ambient techno and psychedelic folk, to black metal, drone, punk and rock ‘n’ roll), The Livelong Day is no ordinary traditional Irish folk album. Though comprised largely of standards of the genre, Lankum imbues these songs with the type of atmospherics and soundscapes that you would only hear on dark ambient albums but with the intensely ethereal dynamism of fellow countrymen My Bloody Valentine. Lankum are, of course, no strangers to stretching the confines of folk music in terms of form, volume and length. The Livelong Day is just short of an hour long but it never feels like it, maintaining its suspense with equal thanks to be given to both the spectral vocal harmonies and the constant, unsettling hum of uilleann pipes, concertina and harmoniums.
Lankum rearranges well-known folk songs with remarkable aplomb. Their interpretation of “The Wild Rover,” once Ireland’s go-to drinking song, is here transformed into a sprawling, droning epic; opening with jarring strings that increase in pitch and volume until the reach a klaxonesque apex. Peat’s vocal delivery, smooth and soft yet mournful and regretful removes any sense of merriment from the old story of playboys wandering in search of a good time. It’s the sort of sound you’d expect to hear over an introductory long shot of a post-apocalyptic film.
This segues elegantly into the achingly pretty, rambling melody of “Young People,” its heart-wrenching melody underpinning a lyrical reflection on suicide (“Found them swinging/ Four long years ago… his tongue was tasting the morning”) before building to a triumphant chorus. Lankum does a wonderful job of marrying sorrow and hope on The Livelong Day.
Peat’s pained lead vocal on “Katie Cruel”—a song which borrows an air from the Scottish ballad “Licht Bob’s Lassie,” a sex worker’s lament—offers one of the most thought-provoking lyrics in this regard: “If I was where I would be/ Then I’d be where I’m not/ Here I am where I must be/ Where I would be, I cannot.” Shirking the deft fingerpicking offered in Karen Dalton’s version, it’s an overwhelmingly sad turn but one that also gives a feeling of acceptance. That this is followed by a near-lullaby in “The Dark Eyed Gypsy” speaks volumes about the juxtaposition of tone throughout the record.
There is beauty of the sublime kind to be found elsewhere. “Ode to Lullaby” moves at nautical pace, a slow, meandering fiddle piece. Ambient sounds that evoke seawater lapping and ships passing at night. There are also some lighter moments (“Bear Creek”). Finale “Hunting the Wren” is a stunning, arresting original composition, paying homage to women living rough along the plains of the Curragh, County Kildare in the 19th Century.
All in all, The Livelong Day is Lankum’s boldest statement yet. They approach traditional Irish music with a sense of reverence and wonder that emanates through every instrumental track therein and a measured reimagining of that style’s most common motifs. Dark and anxiety-inducing but resonant and even joyful at times, The Livelong Day could see Lankum placed at the forefront of the global folk scene, and rightly so.