Lankum: The Livelong Day – Folk Witness Album of the Year 2019

The last one began with a deep breath of air. This one kicks off with an ascending violin note that could be an air raid siren.

When a band makes an album as good as Lankum did with Between the Earth and SkyFolk Witness’ album of 2017 – you sometimes fear for the follow-up. But The Livelong Day dispels any such worries. It shows the Dublin quartet growing in confidence, doubling down on their dark, droney approach, increasingly aware that they don’t have to throw in a jolly tune to consolidate their appeal.

For example: opener The Wild Rover goes on for ten minutes (while still impressive, the abridged version in the video is lacking something of the album track’s menace – not to mention that air raid siren intro). Powerful and strange, it grimly determines to play up the ‘regret and shame’ the album’s liner notes insist are ‘closer to the original sentiment of the song’.

There’s The Dark Eyed Gypsy, measured and melancholy. Or Katie Cruel – (appropriately) originally arranged to feature in a film about post-apocalyptic Ireland. Again the band intuit the song’s darkest meaning, and the juddering drone is pierced by Radie Peat’s clarion voice. Has the ‘diddle-aye-um’ fol-de-rol ever sounded so menacing?

Even the tunes are downbeat. The Pride of Petravore sounds like the grinding of frightening machinery, while the double-bill of Ode to Lullaby and Bear Creek are similarly funereal – though the spine-shivering strings of the former do eventually give way to the closest moment the album has to something danceable.

The self-penned songs hold up too. The Young People opens with the same startling image as Chris Wood’s song Albion – the discovery of a body. It’s a piece of extraordinary poetry – ‘His tongue was tasting the morning / his feet were ringing the bell’ – that somehow manages (via a chorus so catchy you initially assume it’s something trad you’ve heard before) to find the light getting in through the cracks.

The just-as-remarkable Hunting the Wren brings us to the end. Inspired by the ‘Wrens of the Curragh’ – a group of outcast women living on County Kildare’s plains in the 19th century – as well as the fate of the titular bird on ‘Wren Day’ – it sees Peat detail iniquity, bloodshed and broken wings to a shuddering death march.

Harsh is the livelong day, indeed. It’s not incorrect to describe the song as bleak – but it’s never devoid of hope, or beauty. Same goes for the album. It’s musically rich and nuanced, lyrically compelling, and adroitly researched and arranged – with a flash of dark magic, too. The Livelong Day showcases a band operating (still, somehow) at the peak of its powers – and incidentally becoming the first artist to have made two Folk Witness albums of the year. We already can’t wait for the next one.

Album of the year 2018 – Karine Polwart: Laws of Motion

Album of the year 2017 – Lankum: Between the Earth & Sky

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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