Aug 082023

One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.

A confession: I am an avowed Lankumite. Is that even a thing? Well, if it isn’t, it should be. Anyway, Lankum, the folk-music group from Dublin, are doing radical things with traditional Irish (and, more broadly, Celtic) song. They’ve taken the genre from the middle of the road, where it’s been content to exist in an almost homogenous state of stupefaction, and dragged it back into the ditch (yep, you’ve probably read that analogy before). Now, don’t get me wrong; there is a jaw-dropping virtuosity among the current constituency of players–but, well, that’s the problem. It’s all too impeccably rendered. There is little or no grit. Not only do Lankum drag it back into the ditch, they drag it through the mud of edgy contemporary influences to forge something as modern as it is ancient.

Three albums in and the promise of each has delivered in spades. Mojo magazine described Between the Earth and Sky as “powerfully strange” (in a good way), while The Independent newspaper in the UK lauded Lankum for offering “an object lesson in how to perform old songs in new ways, without losing the essential sense of continuity that gives traditional music its timeless appeal.” Their followup, The Livelong Day, is every more delightfully disquieting – the track “Katie Cruel” especially so – and finds the band firmly staking the territory claimed on their debut before they establish their own country altogether on False Lankum.

The real revelation, among many, is “The Wild Rover” (from Between the Earth and Sky), a horror movie dirge that subverts the popular embrace of the song as a drinking anthem and plunges it into a miasma of alcoholic regret.

Some context, I think. Ireland is comparable in size to the US state of Indiana. Yet what totemic cultural figures could Indiana declare that are imbued with the stature of Joyce, Beckett, Yeats, Wilde, Heaney, and the rest? I rest my case. Yet it fair aches my poor Irish heart to acknowledge that the image of these evolutionary writers may not be the predominant one among our global brothers and sisters when they think of Irishness. That image, I fear, would involve copious pints of creamy porter fueling a near-psychotic bonhomie that somehow translates – through the bleary eyes of alcohol, no doubt – as craic.

Well, if the cap fits.

You see, we as a people have, in the parlance of the day, an unhealthy relationship with the drink. God knows, I myself am culpable. “The Wild Rover” has been part of that unhealthy relationship, central to the myth of the craic. Lankum turn this misappropriation on its head, returning the composition to its original intent.

“The Wild Rover” first emerged as a 17th Century English broadside from the pen of by Thomas Lanfiere, with later versions to be found in England, Scotland, Ireland, North America, and Australia. A young man, away from home for years, goes back to his old familiar hostelry, the landlady refuses him credit until he produces the gold gained on his travels. He pledges that his days of gallivanting are done and he’s ready to settle down. Which sounds very noble. Except Lankum transform it into a cautionary tale mired in the dread that comes with the accounting of a life.

According to Daragh Lynch, one of Lankum’s vocalists among multiple other things, it was a pro-temperance English broadside in the mid-19th Century. But, as he lamented to Boston Irish, “the version most people are familiar with doesn’t really speak to the grief and sorrow this so-called wild rover feels for having wasted his life.”

Lynch’s brother Ian, another of the band’s vocalists among multiple other things (!), went further when talking to the Irish Examiner, expressing offence at the drunken Paddy caricature featuring “The Wild Rover” as part of its soundtrack. He wanted “to maybe educate people a bit.”
He goes on: “Just trying to figure out how the song, which encouraged sobriety and was really playing up all the bad points of drinking your money away, and all the negative aspects of that, how that song over the years became this other thing, that’s the polar opposite.”

When Radie Peat sings of spending all her money on whiskey and beer, she’s not doing so with braggadocio but with regret. The kind of regret that can trouble a soul, the kind of trouble that can lead a soul astray down some badly lit roads. Sometimes I amuse myself by imagining the uncomprehending, appalled, dumb faces of the guests at a wedding – “What in the name of Jaysus…?!!!” – as Lankum’s “The Wild Rover” menaces into their orbit and sends them bolting from the dancefloor for the refuge of the bar. I should probably take up sport.

The haunted entity manifests itself in on a slightly uncanny desolate drone before a fiddle chisels out the melody and Peat’s portentous reading begins. There’s a daub of harmonic color on the chorus, even if the color is bog water grey. They impart the whole lesson in a sober – oh, the irony – monotone. Even after they’ve vomited up the bile of self-recrimination, the wretchedness of it doesn’t end there. The merciless industrial-heavy coda hurls us into a sonic apparition of Pieter Bruegel’s Dull Gret (work with me), as we occupy a window seat through hell, which is really just another word for torment.

And it’s this torment that tightens the arteries on Lankum’s version, that leaves you gasping for air, a flapping fish dying on the deck of some trawler hanging precariously from the ledge of a towering wave in the abyss of the Atlantic ocean. It’s this torment that reclaims “The Wild Rover” from the novelty bin and restores it to its rightful place as a song to be reckoned, not trifled, with. Brave its relentless depths and you too could become a Lankumite.

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