Lankum: The Livelong Day review – A fierce and fragile masterpiece

Lankum march to the beat of their own tune too: in all its anarchic glory

The Livelong Day
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Artist: Lankum
Genre: Traditional
Label: Rough Trade

Expectations upended, preconceptions shattered: that’s the shape of Lankum’s world, and it’s a world of wide horizons and imaginations writ large on The Livelong Day, their third studio album.

By turn fierce and fragile, this collection of eight songs clocks in at a hefty 56 minutes. Just shy of an hour of visceral music, this chillingly cohesive album is built on a wall of sound that rattles as many assumptions about what traditional and folk music can and might be as Phil Spector did in the 1960s.

These are songs to be mined, stories to be navigated with a compass and torch, all the better to feel your way into their labyrinthine depths. At times this collection feels more like a soundtrack to a Jim Jarmusch film, with Tom Waits topping the bill. How else might The Pride of Petravore be explained? Filled with foreboding, it takes Percy French's sprightly Eileen Oge and cackles devilishly as it morphs it into a fiendishly ominous set piece, cinematic in scope and Joker-like in tone.

Throughout this album, drones reign supreme, whether it’s Ian Lynch’s uilleann pipes on The Young People or Radie Peat’s magnetically creaking harmonium or bayan accordion on The Wild Rover. Then there’s Cormac MacDiarmada’s double stopping fiddle that nestles perfectly in the surrealist acoustic soundscape, and Daragh Lynch’s gloriously murky guitar on The Dark Eyed Gypsy. Make no mistake: this is as deep a seam as anything ever mined by Gorecki in his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs or by Bonnie “Prince” Billy in I See a Darkness.


But where there's shade, there's light too, and the pair of instrumental tunes, Ode to Lullaby and Bear Creek, could claim some kinship to the work of Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Dan Trueman on their 2014 album Laghdú: nosing their way through the Missouri and American old-timey undergrowth with an uncanny instinct for finding that elusive light.

Contemporary resonances

The contemporary resonances ricochet throughout. Katie Cruel and Hunting The Wren make for strangely comfortable companion pieces, each referencing the sacrificial altars to which women have been consigned in the name of patriarchy. Here, Radie Peat pushes her deadpan vocals into the heart of Lankum's drone-laden, doom-filled world, the words tumbling from her lips like stray feathers in search of a safe landing, or better still, an undercurrent to take them to who knows where.

Peat possesses an unshakeable sense of herself as not only a vocalist (and player of harmonium, accordion and Wurlitzer) but as a harbinger of what's to come, with all the devil may care attitude of Margaret Barry, the chutzpah of Chrissie Hynde and the insouciance of Lou Reed. Every listen circles back to that inside-out reading of The Wild Rover. Who knew that this garrulous bar room brawl of a song had its origins as an English ode to temperance? This is exactly the terrain in which Lankum flourish: reframing blandly (and for some, jadedly) familiar songs in a wickedly new context that forces the listener to re-evaluate the music from the ground floor up.

This is not the stuff of dilettantes seeking to test and taste multiple genres, in pursuit of the next adrenaline rush. But neither is Lankum's latest foray an extreme outlier. They're part of a wave of creative experimentalism that has fuelled the groundbreaking work of everyone from The Gloaming to Ensemble Ériú, Donnacha Dennehy and Cormac Begley, Mel Mercier, and, at its centre, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh in all his whirling dervish collaborations.

Thing is, Lankum march to the beat of their own tune too: in all its anarchic glory.

Siobhán Long

Siobhán Long

Siobhán Long, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about traditional music and the wider arts