In early 2021 Lankum stood high above Dublin, facing the winds of Ireland’s east coast overlooking the city in which they had made music together for over 10 years… and there was a feeling of disconnect. They had never seen it from this angle as they had always been firmly rooted within in it, perhaps even more as individuals than as a band. And so, at the aptly named Hellfire studios – starved of human contact and creating sound where for so long there had been silence – they began recording their fourth studio album False Lankum. Though sleeping each night in a Martello Tower next-door to Joyce’s own, it was not the time for Lankum to look to history, nor to look down to Dublin and the present, but to look outward towards the sea – to look beyond themselves and that which was expected of them.
It was only after recording the band realised that almost every song on the album, collected or written, had some sort of reference to the sea. Some unknown force had drawn them to that, the greatest and most prolific song collector there has ever been, which has transported stories for hundreds of years and even carried the album’s opener ‘Go Dig My Grave’ from Robert Johnson’s ‘A Forlorn Lover’s Complaint’, (c.1611), to Jean Ritchie’s recording in 1963 and then to Ireland’s own Lankum on its watery back. Their version of the song is both transcendent and an earthly beast lying in wait, and if this is an album of soaring highs and devastating musical lows, then with their first single, Lankum show us Hell before they show us Heaven.
If you have ever been to a Lankum gig, ‘Go Dig My Grave’ perfectly captures how it feels to hear them live. They play together as though they are a single lung, with sounds expanding and collapsing from indistinguishable mouths, bellies, fingers, keys and feet creating not so much a wall but an orb of sound. A starkly beautiful and haunting ball of energy. The unmistakable drone sound running through their work, as you’ll hear on their most well-known tracks, ‘The Wild Rover’ (from The Livelong Day, 2019) and ‘What Will We Do When We Have No Money’ (Between the Earth and Sky, 2017) has the power to draw you away from the world as you give yourself up to its unique, cutting-edge soundscape.
The Livelong Day was the album that broke Lankum out of the mould of ‘Irish traditional’ or ‘folk’ music. It paved the way to critical and commercial success, earning them the RTE Choice Music Prize in 2019 and resulting in their Vicar Street shows at the end of this year selling out in just 20 minutes, having not released music in the three years since its release. And with new music comes new voices. On the album cover for False Lankum, Cormac Dermody’s blurry figure is brought to the foreground, overlooking Gustav Dore’s sprawling wood etching depicting Dante and Virgil crossing the river Styx at the beginning of hell.
It is Cormac’s first time singing a full song on any Lankum record, and the sweetness and crispness of his voice combined with his perfect pitch brings with it a feeling of new life. He carries the bittersweet melody with a breeziness that helps us forget the tragedy of ‘Lord Abore and Mary Flynn’ in which a mother poisons her son because she disapproves of the woman he has chosen to marry. Radie’s harmonies join Cormac’s melody, and like a best friend her voice sits closely to his and dances around it. Her own voice is weightless, contrary to its usual gutsiness that has become so familiar.
A similar phenomenon takes place during ‘Newcastle’: a heart-breaking tale of pain, of longing for love and for home. Its timeless melody evokes the songs of Ewan MacColl both in its simplicity and the familiarity of the lyrics: Why should I not love my love? Why shouldn’t my love love me? Why should I not speed after her? When love to all is free, sings Radie. She resists pulling us away into dark, sonic depths, and is instead lifted by the soft hum of indiscernible voices- Lankum’s delicate ecosystem. There is, however, one voice whose poetical power momentarily cuts through.
Daragh penned the two original tracks on the album, ‘Netta Perseus’ and ‘The Turn’, and it is his songs that help give False Lankum it’s contemporary voice. Daragh’s ability to wring out the guts of his metaphors allows us to dive into the imagery of these songs, even though they are often veiled in mystery. The definition of ‘Netta Perseus’, for example, remains a secret, and this restraint is echoed in the songs final lines: She whispers that she does adore me/ But I dare not look into those eyes/ I dare not look into those eyes.
Four albums in, the band’s approach to making records remains the same: “If you hear a song and you like It and you think there’s an interesting thread to pull on in terms of world-creation and emotion, you try and take that, dismantle it out of whatever way you’ve heard it, and together eek and draw out its emotional message, reimagined.” These songs are not just songs, they are also stories. They have their own narrative, “and this is often why the songs don’t sound like each other on the album.
Of course, there are the same tools and the same voices, but our intention is not to make them ‘Lankum-sounding’, we’re just trying to create an honest representation of what we feel is the core or essence of the song.” ‘The New York Trader’, for example, carries with it history, storytelling, mythology and magic, and no one knows this better than its singer Ian Lynch, a scholar in Irish music recently home from a lecture tour in the US. Despite this, he liberates himself from what the song expects (almost literally in the music’s dramatic pause) before launching back into it, razor-sharp, raw and rattling.
For the most part, Lankum went into the recording studio without any idea of what this album would sound like at the other end, but what they did know is that they wanted the songs to feed into each other, and the album to feel like “a piece and not just tracks.” So, in a way, what ties these songs together is their emotional essence. False Lankum was written and recorded from January 2021 until Summer 2022 between Killiney, Hellfire Studio and Guerilla studio, in week (or so) long bursts. These gaps in the recording gave the songs time to settle, so the band could come back to them with fresh ears, “but then, it was also weird because weeks or months after we’d come and listen back, and it would feel like somebody else’s recording… which we really liked because you could be more objective. It didn’t feel as intensely personal.” This way of recording incrementally and with no time pressure allowed the songs to be fed and nurtured not only by the band but by long-time friend and producer John ‘Spud’ Murphy, who would use the time in between to edit and tweak each recording. It was only after their fourth session that they were able start introducing what Spud calls “the weirder stuff,” which included snapping the hairs from bows and gliding them across the strings of a piano’s insides.
Or, more conventionally, Ian experimented with tape looping and brought in the Tascam Portastudio 424 MKII-utilising these recording tools for the first time. As well as this, the ‘weirder stuff’ can also be defined as all the bits in between: the twinkles, the sighs between songs, the grey matter that floats ethereally as the needle moves between grooves, and it is within these otherworldly, visionary moments that Lankum recall bands like Beak, Low, Swans, Godspeed You Black Emperor! and The Dirty Three.
The three Fugues that feature on the album play a crucial part in giving False Lankum its uncanny identity. They were born out of a single improvised track that got culled, affectionately called ‘Sheep Stealer’, though it’s difficult to marry that name to the 3 detached bodies of music which remain: a chaos of sounds that seem to mirror time moving backwards. They feature the bowed banjo, drums, hammered dulcimer, bowed guitar, harmonium, tape loops and drums: “it was a ten-minute-long wall with loads of shit in it” a wall which Spud then dismantled: isolating some parts, augmenting and corrupting melodies, and just generally “fucking with it.” Now the Sheep Stealer asserts itself across the album as an innovative yet unreliable anchor…
And so, not to stand, but to float high above that which has come before and that which exists now. To listen to the open water, and feel that there are other lands, other histories, other stories: Ireland, England, America and back to Ireland Lankum moves, like the rest of us, meandering fearfully into the unknown. Their music does not aim to preserve itself in the ice of history or culture never to be touched, but instead False Lankum brings with it the warmth of young hands, the newness of possibility, the fierce beauty of pain and joy, of heaven and of hell. False Lankum will not just be one of the most important cultural records to come out of Ireland, but an earth-shattering album for the ages.
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