Dublin folk miscreants Lankum are a band on the cusp of two mighty traditions. One is the alternative/ punk movement of anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist music as a protest against the times background, that underlies everything they do. The other is the Irish folk tradition (and folk of other countries too, because this tradition hasn’t much more regard for international borders than punk does), one of songs passed down through generations, moulded by the circumstances of those interpreting it into a powerful tool to deal with the unrelenting difficulties life throws at you.
Spend a little time listening to Lankum’s ‘Between the Earth and Sky’, and you’ll find it very hard to draw a strict line between these two things. Certainly, it’s nigh impossible to say where one influence ends and the other begins in their sound.
The four-piece find a unity in these and a whole bunch more elements, moulding a host of diverse and contrasting sources into a distinctive characteristic sound. It’s so distinct in fact, it feels like it has belonged to Lankum for ever.
There’s a definite humour here, but little outright cheer, much less any sentiment that could be confused for a pop sensibility. Between the prolonged droning vocals of What Will We Do If We Have No Money and the stark acapella Peat Bog Soldiers, the opening tracks resound with imagery or hunger, starvation and poverty.
Interpretations on this theme could be traced back to just about any point in Irish history, but that’s not what Lankum are at. They’re here to keep this right in the present, to politicise it, to let us know there’s a great hungry going on right now.
This comes to a head on the band’s self-penned tracks. Bad Luck to the Rolling Water is a mournful lamentation employing harmonic vocals to spin the tale of a heartbroken lover bewailing the emigration of his one true love. The track is blasted with a dose of bitter black humour that marries pathos with a wry punchline. It could be no more than a bawdy ballad, but somehow Lankum have elevated it into something much more.
Déanta in Éireann goes from emigration lamentation to emigration to a tough rebuke of the faults of the Irish as a whole. The song paints a unflinching portrait of broken, self-destructing land by demolishing the traits of the easy-going fun-loving Irish with a brutal dose of familiar reality:
“And the green rag that’s tied round our ears and our eyes/Well it stops us from tellin the truth from the lies/For competitional patience we’d win the first prize/For we’re too easy going in auld Éireann.”
The Ireland in this song is one where the average Irish fool is content to sit idly by as he’s robbed blind by the same few canny bastards who’ve been in power forever. This is no poor mouth tale where misery is unavoidable and constantly assured without source, instead Lankum have their gaze firmly fixed on the causes.
They’re here knocking on the gates with protest music, and fiddles and melodeons instead of pitchforks. Their music is an unmistakable call to stand up and pay attention to the reality of what’s really going in the world, rather than raising a glass to some fantasy version of our past.
A lot of the sheer power of ‘Between the Earth and Sky’ is in the haunting vocal delivery of Radie Peat. Her harsh drone of a voice pierces right through the whole album, conveying such a weight of loss, suffering and sadness whenever it appears. She takes centre stage on The Granite Gaze – a song of the band’s own that feels like a tune that’s been around forever, such is the sheer mass of the emotion it carries along with it.
Yet again Lankum have zero time for any idea of the past that blinds us to the present: “The future’s just a thing we say to keep the sordid past at bay/ Still we cling on to the mother who eats her own.” The sadness here is all the more potent for the fact that what we’ve lost, we could have kept, if only we’d had a bit more fuckin sense. “They stole the marrow from our very bones,” moans Peat on the cutting, unforgiving chorus, “and we in turn turned on our own.”
Despite the on the nose social commentary, these songs all feel like they’ve been around forever. Or maybe it’s because of that, and the sound of people reacting to their times hasn’t changed that much after all. Here the traditional tunes that Lankum have reinterpreted have been injected with a hefty dose of force that make them seem startlingly contemporary, while the band’s self-penned work carries with it the impression of timeworn wisdom.
‘Between the Earth and Sky’ is nominated for this year’s Choice Prize. As a portrait of our little country in this present moment, there’s no competition.