When Lankum – formerly known as Lynched – began playing as a four-piece around 2012, their immediacy and frankness was refreshing.
The sound captured on their debut record, the self-released Cold Old Fire, was an unvarnished assembly of dark, passionate, and often funny songs about life on the margins. It was deeply traditional, but it felt new too, or at least it rhymed in a new way with the times in which it found itself.
The title track expressed something undeniable about being broke, bored and pissed off in recessionary Ireland, while the updated traditional songs formed a deeply desired connection to a vanishing, or disregarded, Irish history. The band's much-noted affinity to punk music, for once, didn't feel like a gimmick; the sensibility was there in both the music and the approach.
When they appeared on Jools Holland's Later in 2015, the appeal of their four-part harmonies and the many musical threads they had woven together was obvious.
Between The Earth And Sky, the band's second record – and first for Rough Trade – picks up where Cold Old Fire left off, mixing traditional songs with the band's own compositions.
Familiar songs such as Sergeant William Bailey and Peat Bog Soldiers are rendered with glorious, harmonised enthusiasm. The former tells of the decline of a recruiting officer from the British army, while the latter is an English translation of a song first sung by political prisoners in Nazi Germany's labour camps.
Both are about the crimes of empire, about the relationship between a people and the country they call their own. It’s a running theme throughout the album.
The Granite Gaze is a dark invective directed at official Ireland for the impoverishment and abandonment of the Irish people. The State here is "the mother that eats her own", with the people left to fight among themselves: "We traded lumps on narrow streets/Can't bite the hand when you've no teeth."
Radie Peat sings the finest lyrics on the record, chronicling the rampant hypocrisy of an establishment that celebrates itself with gusto – “the last gasp of wonder for a cretin on a throne” – and contrasting that shallow memorialising with the daughters sneaking “away across the foam”. It’s hard, angry, bitter stuff, and it’s great.
However, when the song swells in the middle to a galloping crescendo, it doesn’t quite take off, or even lose control, but it is among the most thrilling moments on the record nonetheless.
Déanta in Éireann is another eight minutes of pure disgust at the state of affairs in "auld Éireann". It's an updated emigrant song that asks, why wouldn't you leave the place when you're paying through the nose for a "dank one-roomed hovel"?
Ian Lynch drips with irony as he sings about how you’ll be gifted with a job, praise, and free drink when you get to “the new world”, or about how “we’re slow to learn in auld Éireann”, but slips into something like self-parody when missing “all the slaggings and for-jaysus’-sakes/ all the hot bowls of coddle that your ma used to make”.
The anger in Déanta in Éireann is palpable, welcome, and well-directed. However, just as a film such as Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake can be utterly correct in its criticisms but disappointingly artless in its presentation, the song seems stagnant, airless, limp almost.
The churning of the pipes as they come in and out of the tune is not enough to disrupt the relatively unadorned, heart-on-sleeve delivery. This is one moment when Lankum feel almost old fashioned – singing truth to power in a generalised way, forging a strategy which has largely lost its capacity to jolt or rouse.
And it is that feeling which ultimately haunts Between The Earth and Sky. It lingers, this sense that maybe accuracy or righteousness isn't quite enough to get the whole operation over the line, enough to take a message you believe in and make you burn with the truth of it once more.
Never fully explored
I find myself crying out for some abstraction, some greater subtlety; a misdirection which would allow the songs and their words to creep under the skin. A wider scope is often hinted at – the silvery finish of Willow Garden, the cresting wave and astringent poetry of The Granite Gaze – but never fully explored.
The lines between “traditional” music and other sounds are less clear than ever, and groups such as This is How We Fly and United Bible Studies have built upwards and outwards from foundations laid down by the likes of Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine.
Between The Earth and Sky can feel a little safe by comparison, a little too tightly bound. The voices and stories captured here are undoubtedly powerful and necessary, and sometimes quite moving, but there's yet more hidden in the wilds and badlands of tradition than this record admits.