Lankum: Between the Earth and Sky – Folk Witness Album of the Year 2017

The first thing we hear is air filling the lungs of Ian Lynch’s uilleann pipes, the note quickly bending into a portentous, bowel-shaking drone. Just four seconds into Lankum’s Between the Earth and Sky, there’s already a sense of intimacy – the idea that what we’re about to hear is fresh, honest and real. Think of the plug-and-play introduction to Radiohead’s 2003 album Hail to the Thief. “That’s a nice way to start” indeed.

And so it proves. The song we’re listening to, What Will We Do When We Have No Money, is about keeping going in the face of hardship, but singer Radie Peat’s blazing delivery – sincere, solemn – sure puts the focus on that hardship. Later on, Peat sings on The Granite Gaze, just as austere but rather more pointed – with the Irish state in its glare. “The future’s just a thing we say to keep the sordid past at bay,” it glumly contends, lamenting the daughters who “sneak away across the foam”. It’s simply stunning – check out Stephen McCollum’s disturbing video for the track, below.

Ian Lynch sings lead vocals on most of the songs, including Sergeant William Bailey, a wry portrait of a British recruiting sergeant that features a huge, joyously ridiculous (it almost sounds sarcastic) marching band coda. There’s a sense of bitterness to Peat Bog Soldiers, too. Remarkably, this song was composed in a Nazi labour camp. It has – in its original German and in translation – become a symbol of resistance and peace across Europe. Lankum sing it in gritty, beautiful harmony.

As you might expect, there are tales of murder and deceit. The drone is back with a vengeance for a mighty, 12-minute version of The Turkish Reveille. With Daragh Lynch’s guitar as a sweet counterpoint, the song achieves a meditative state of dismay. Closer Willow Garden tells of a money-motivated murder that’s riddled with ambiguity and regret. Any ideas the listener might have had about the album’s title reflecting some kind of airy spirituality are summarily dispelled by its final line.

Less expected is the remarkable Irish emigration ballad Déanta in Éireann. Ian Lynch pours scorn on the pricey “dank one-roomed hovels” (and, a touch pedantically, the poor weather) of the ‘old country’ and goes on to address the patronising welcomes given to ex-pat Irish people – “misdirected respect”. His cry for change at home is honest, passionate and thrilling.

Between the Earth and Sky feels more tonally coherent than the band’s last album, Cold Old Fire (recorded as Lynched). There’s no equivalent to that record’s Sweet Daffodil Mulligan to lighten the mood, for example. You could look to the relatively jolly Bad Luck to the Rolling Water, which is undoubtedly funny and cheery – but then again, the song’s hero Nancy is a violent, drug-dealing drunk, who abandons our hopeless narrator. Even the album’s sole instrumental number – The Townie Polka – is downbeat. Lovely, yes, but downbeat.

But though this makes for a musically and lyrically dark album (with sufficient cracks to let the light in, it must be said), it also illustrates the group’s confidence. This year Lankum changed their name –a risk, given the goodwill that they had accrued as Lynched. It was a bold move, but you have to admire the courage of conviction it took to do it. That translates to a superb record – FW’s album of the year. As Lankum might put it: fair fucks!

(Main picture credit: Aidan Kelly Murphy)

Album of the year 2016 – Jim Moray – Upcetera

Albums of the year 2015 – Olivia Chaney: The Longest River & False Lights: Salvor

Album of the year 2014 – Martin & Eliza Carthy: The Moral of the Elephant

Album of the year 2013 – The Full English

Album of the year 2012 – Fay Hield: Orfeo

Album of the year 2011 – Mary Hampton: Folly

Don’t forget, you can follow Folk Witness on Twitter or like it on Facebook. Happy New Year!

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