I Died For Love

A introspective dissection of False Lankum with a 10-month tardy

In the late nineteenth century, writers all over Ireland pioneered a culturally revolutionary movement that treaded its feet into deep waters, creating a ripple effect beyond the lonesome island and into the very backbone of modern and post-modern literature. From James O’Leary came W.B. Yeats, James Joyce and Flann O’Brien, and later Colm Tóibín and Claire Keegan. Their works transgressed the test of time in part due to their individual talents, but more so because of a stringently unyielding pride in the richness of their culture. While nationalism and undying love for one’s homeland persist in every corner of the world, the Gaelic Revival was birthed not out of a nostalgic parade but out of the need to fight for the survival of the Irish identity. It was not an idyllic soiree that called for simpler times. It was a lamentation via pen and ink of the imminent threat that one day, the Gaelic language and Irish culture as a whole would not exist anymore. 

It is in this narrative that Lankum comes into play, facing a different adversary than the writers who fought with words and stories to defend their place in the world. In an era of consumerism and late-stage capitalism, the line between creative drive and an incentive for profit and fame has completely disappeared. The Dublin quartet faces a different battle, one that bargains between virality, glamor, fame, and money—which is why, to me, it is rather interesting that they chose to use the same weapon that many Irish writers used in their own fight for survival: culture. To much success, Lankum’s 2023 album False Lankum documents not just the band finally finding their own identity within the well-and-alive movement of the Gaelic Revival, but it also presents a larger discourse surrounding the musical ecosystem of the 21st century. 

A far cry from their original anti-establishment punk roots, Lankum reinvents themselves in the warm comforts of their homeland, experimenting with old stanzas that have circulated around folk communities for performers to recall on a whim known as “floating verses” in a timeless, yet classic sound. The name of the album itself comes from a “floating verse” of the same name that recounts the tale of a motiveless murder of a woman and her infant, setting listeners for the direction that the album will take. False Lankum and, to a greater extent, their 2019 hit album The Livelong Day, has a lot of elements that their previous catalog lacked—lead singer Radie Peat’s husky, austere vocals, the melodic strings of the fiddle, the enigmatic vigor of the uilleann pipes, and the rhythmic beats of the bodhrán. While The Livelong Day dabbles between the hypnotic jubilee of the fiddle and traditional instrumental intermissions, False Lankum fully dives into the intricacies of Irish folk music by taking classic ballads and rewiring them in a way that keeps the tone, themes, and atmosphere of the past. 

The opener, “Go Dig My Grave,” is a defining example that introduces you to Lankum’s newfound, timeless sound. Perfecting the practice of “floating verses,” the band takes their eclectic spin on the classic ballad “The Butcher’s Boy,” a tale of a butcher’s apprentice being unfaithful to his lover. While the order of the verses has been arranged in different parts of the song throughout the ballad’s existence, the story always ends in a harrowing finish: the lover hangs herself and leaves a note for her father, requesting to be buried with a white, turtle dove atop her breast as a poetic gesture of showing the world that she died for love. Radie Peat excellently takes the brooding nature of the ballad with her low, foreboding voice—almost as if she lived through the grief and betrayal of the “Butcher Boy’s” lover. As she traverses each line, transforming the song into a rhythmic poem that swings back and forth, she embodies a picturesque icon of a forlorn lover’s misery. The slow rumble of the bodhrán, combined with the distressing, high-pitched hymns of the fiddle, wraps you with each listen into a deep, unnerving void that envelops you into the world of “The Butcher’s Boy,” one that is bleedingly bleak. The song ends with a weeping prayer, as Peat repeats the Lord’s name in a desperate, woeful cry.

Go dig my grave / Both wide and deep / Place a marble stone / At my head and feet
And on my breast / A snow white dove / To tell this world / That I died for love
Oh lordy Lord / Oh lordy me / Oh Lord oh Lord / Oh lordy me

Themes of betrayal, death, and lost lovers amidst a nautical background are reoccurring throughout the entire album, with “Clear Away in the Morning,” a traditional maritime song popularized by American folklorist Gordon Bok in Peter Kagan and the Wind, telling a tale of a sailor yearning for his presumably dead lover, “Nancy.” “Newcastle,” another ballad with a rich history dating back to 1620, is a cutting lamentation of a man whose wife left him in Newcastle for someone else in London. “The New York Trader,” the only song sung by fellow member Ian Lynch, is about a criminal helming a ship to America as the captain, slowly confessing his crimes aboard as the song unfolds in a crescendo of Lynch’s low, melodic voice bordering angsty whispers of secrecy. The turmoil surrounding a murderer on the ship is met with pathetic fallacy as a whirling storm ensues, the weather only clearing once the captain has been thrown off the ship.

And when we reached that New York shore / Our good little ship for to repair / The people wondered much to see / Such a poor distressed and shipwreck crew were we
So sailors all where'er you be / A warning pray you take by me / As you love your life won't yous take good care / And never go sailing with a murderer

“Lord Abore and Mary Flynn” is a classic murder ballad that has swum across many folk circles, depicting a bone-chilling narrative of a mother poisoning her son Lord Abore for marrying Mary Flynn, a woman she refused to give her blessing to. Tragically, Mary Flynn asks for her ring back and is murdered by her would-be mother-in-law, both happily reuniting next to each other as she lays her cheek down by his side. “Lord Abore and Mary Flynn” is also sung as a duet between Peat and Lynch, accompanied by the weeping plucking of the mandolin to evoke a story that transcends the medium of music—one that can be imagined, seen, felt, and tasted as Peat and Lynch blend their voices in the climax of the song. 

She's called for a cask of the very best wine / Then filled a glass for him / To her father false with her two fingers / She's put strong poison in / She's put strong poison in

With each song they cover, the band simultaneously transports listeners to the past while keeping these timeless ballads' messages relevant today. Everyone has had their heart broken; everyone has experienced losing a lover; everyone has experienced a familial betrayal so deep that it almost feels like death itself. Tragedy and calamity may be everywhere, but there is an underlying comfort in acknowledging shared, transcendent experiences the same way poets, blues, and folk artists have orally passed down these stories from one generation to another. Lankum has perfected this craft by far in False Lankum, making old forms of music and lyrics seem new with their own sonic addition to the true depth of the long histories behind these ballads. Peat is sometimes joined by Lynch, together adding a sorrowful timbre to the already tragic nature of songs such as “Clear Away in the Morning” and “Newcastle.” 

What I enjoyed the most about False Lankum are the instrumental breaks they add after each lyrical ballad, inducing a feel of going to an Irish pub and seeing a folk gig live. “Fugue I, II, and III” provides an all-encompassing, atmospheric lullaby vividly rich with the unique colors of each Irish instrument they use. Although minimalistic owing to the heavy reliance on drone, the slow, rumbling commencement of various flutes in all fugues adds an electrifyingly suspenseful taste of anticipation, as if you tell you that the next song will be more dreadful than the one they sang prior. In “Master Crowley’s,” the gleeful jive of the concertina and the uilleann pipes breathes life into the breathtaking world of a lost world buried in a distant yet unreachable past, allowing you to experience time travel without the complexity of technological development. With one listen, you collapse into the intricate creation that Lankum carefully crafts out, plunging you straight into the murky camaraderie of an uncertain sailor forced ashore. He is lonely as he is far from home, but he soon finds a sense of comfort and brotherhood amidst the other sailors aboard his ship. Similarly, the jarring paradox between the familiarity and belonging that cultures evoke and the foreign, yet whimsical allure of having such an old, traditional element become a fading rarity in today’s musical ecosystem is hard to miss between Peat’s lullabies and the ancient sounds of Irish instruments. 

Front to back, the album evokes a centuries-old epic, ending with roughly thirteen minutes of anxiously cacophonous low drone in “The Turn.” Though you can undoubtedly find the same effect by listening to each song individually, False Lankum is a highly cohesive album that definitely requires a full listen with a clear, blank state of mind. I find that each story the ballads tell becomes fluid and more imaginative with each passing minute of immersing yourself in the sounds and voices that False Lankum commends you to hear. From the foreboding, menacing introduction of Peat’s low-humming voice in “Go Dig My Grave” all the way into the exhausted sorrows of “On a Monday Morning” and “The Turn,” Lankum weaves their own story through an ocean of history kept safely in the mouths of many generations, keeping the oral tradition of telling these stories all at once. It is no coincidence that the ballads they chose for False Lankum all contain imagery and homages to the sea; staring into Dublin’s shores throughout the album's creation naturally projects itself onto Lankum’s broader narrative. 

There was a distinct social hierarchy among poets in medieval Ireland who traveled around and told tales of current events and Irish affairs in either the form of the Fili, elite scholars who spoke in rhythmic rhymes, or the Bard, who sang the news with the lyre. These poems could range from epics of great kings, folktales about a vast world of mythical creatures, or old maid gossip about the woes of the community’s drunken fool. Regardless of the content, these poets managed to seamlessly integrate and weave in the banality of everyday life into moral lessons from their fantastic tales and vice versa, seeing beauty in even the most mundane events. For this reason, Irish literature—and, to a greater extent, media as a whole—has placed great importance on the tradition of oral storytelling and the appreciation of the ebbs and flows of being human. This practice was evident in Joyce’s "Ulysses," which reads more like a screenplay encased in Leopold Bloom’s fever dream as he goes about his day, and now, in False Lankum’s carefully curated collection of ballads told through an orchestra of Irish instruments commanded by Peat’s alluring voice. In today’s epoch, Lankum’s stories transcend the physical and enter the digital diaspora, accessible for everyone to hear and listen to within the comforts of their own devices. Despite this, they manage to perfectly recreate the experience of being visited by a masterful, 21st-century bard, singing songs of murder and the sea ear to ear as if they were a recent occurrence. Whether you’ll heed the eulogy of the Butcher Boy’s lover in “Go Dig My Grave” or tread with caution from the tragic end of “Lord Abore and Mary Flynn” is up to you; all stories end with a martyr who loved and lost.