“Go Dig My Grave” has been known by many names and sung by many voices. It derives from a folk song typically known as “The Butcher Boy,” though in the American tradition it has reappeared as “The Railroad Boy.” “The Butcher Boy” developed within a family of songs whose verses were rearranged and harvested from older ballads, some dating as far back as the early 17th century, but the story typically goes like this: A young woman is abandoned by her lover (the titular butcher boy), hangs herself, and is found by her father, along with a suicide note with instructions on her burial. The Clancy Brothers sang a version with Tommy Makem in the 1960s; Kirsty MacColl, Elvis Costello, Sinéad O’Connor, and Lambchop all have their own “Butcher Boy.” There are many ways in which you may be familiar with pieces of “Go Dig My Grave,” but none of them will adequately prepare you for what Irish folk experimentalists Lankum present as the opener to the new album False Lankum.
The Dublin group renders this classic folk song of love and death as a gaping wound that aches across generations. Radie Peat’s vocals are unnerving, cutting; she sounds decades older than she is, an aged woman recalling a seismic trauma. Disembodied notes bend and bleed around her, until the song lurches into a foreboding outro straight out of a horror movie. The long life of “Go Dig My Grave” is exactly how folk music works. But over the last decade, Lankum have gone from musicians somewhat faithfully playing within tradition—having cut their teeth the old-school way, learning songs at sessions in pubs around Dublin—to musicians who understand the history enough to warp it into something foreign and transfixing. They take songs that trace back to lost worlds and make them sound instead like a future built on the ruins of today.
This approach coalesced on Lankum’s last album, 2019’s The Livelong Day. Previously, they’d garnered some respect in folk circles for earlier albums, 2014’s Cold Old Fire and 2017’s Between the Earth and Sky. Each had just a hint of something different afoot—like the natural, psychedelic drones of the uilleann pipes drawn out into something resembling slowcore. But with The Livelong Day, the quartet teamed with producer John “Spud” Murphy—now their unofficial fifth member, also producer for Black Midi and caroline of late—and their sound blossomed into a gorgeous, dark reimagining that managed to break new ground in various folk traditions. It won them Ireland’s Choice Music Prize for the album of the year, and marked the potential for a crossover into more mainstream notoriety.
After that success, False Lankum was conceived in uncertain circumstances. During Dublin’s recurring pandemic lockdowns, the quartet—Peat, brothers Ian and Daragh Lynch, and Cormac Mac Diarmada—gathered in an old fort on the sea to write the followup to their acclaimed breakthrough. In isolation, they looked out over Dublin and the water, and they returned with a successor that takes what worked on their previous album and pushes further in every direction. False Lankum sprawls, dense with ideas.
By their own admission, the band is chasing greater extremes this time around. False Lankum alternates between moments of calm, fragile beauty—“Clear Away in the Morning,” “Newcastle,” and “On a Monday Morning” are all straightforward acoustic numbers—and further abstracting and fragmenting the traditions they’re pulling from. “Master Crowley’s” follows Livelong Day standout “The Pride of Petravore” in turning a lively reel into something that wheezes and heaves as if constantly in threat of collapsing in on itself. It eventually drops out into scratching strings and ominous clangs; a similar trick happens in one of Daragh Lynch’s originals, “Netta Perseus,” built on rippling guitar until the song ruptures with synths and tumbling percussion. “The New York Trader” is a rare moment hinting at the Lynch brothers’ punk youth, displaying a frothing intensity and aggression atypical for Lankum.
At times False Lankum plays less like discrete songs and more as one long fever dream composed of scenes from across centuries, familiar forms made unrecognizable once filtered through the band’s idiosyncratic vision. That ever-durable metaphor of the sea became a foundation for the album—Lankum swimming through histories, later realizing that every song is somehow related to the water and the horizon, whether in violence or serenity. “The Turn,” another original, ends the album with a ship sailing off into the distance, and a long refrain ceding to a final drone. It feels like False Lankum fading out into the mythology that birthed it, continuing to forge ahead into unknown waters in search of something as eternal and human as it is alien.
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