The Mercury Prize shortlist: reading between the lines

What do the 2014 ‘Album of the Year’ contenders say about modern British music?

mercuryprizenominees2014First, let’s make one thing absolutely clear: like most awards given for artwork, the Mercury Prize means nothing. Chosen from a collection of roughly 250 UK-based albums submitted by paying entrants – a fraction of those written and released in any one year – the winning record is singled out by a panel of experts for being the best bit of good music released between two Septembers. Circular debates about subjectivity, influence and bias aside, the award is proven a few rungs short of sacrosanct by its dubious track record. The winner in 2003 (the same year that Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief was nominated, and Muse’s Absloution released)? Boy In Da Corner by Dizzie Rascal. Ignored entirely by last year’s panel were outstanding efforts from London Grammar, Fuck Buttons and Frightened Rabbit in favour of Jake Bugg and Rudimental.

Of course, it’s impossible to please everyone. This is exactly the reason why any conclusions drawn from this year’s shortlist about the nature of the UK’s music landscape should be taken with several handfuls of salt.

But draw some I will. Shakers at the ready.

#1: British music has plenty to say that isn’t being said.

The Mercury Prize, despite its shortcomings, has a knack for singling out the innovative, in a musical, lyrical or even political sense. This year is no exception. Kate Tempest’s Everybody Down, one of the early favourites to walk away with the award at Wednesday’s ceremony, is a feat of storytelling and songwriting unlike anything prevalent in popular music today. The 27 year old poet, playwright and rapper is the force behind the 2014 shortlist’s token hip-hop solo record, filling a slot occupied by Plan B in 2012 and, unfathomably, Dizzie Rascal in 2007 and 2010. Tempest’s gritty but strangely vulnerable album feels like a rap effort capable of walking away with the Prize simply for the flavour of intelligence that runs throughout it. The plots and characters that traverse her songs are presented with such a vivid lyrical detail that, when placed in the context of Tempest’s aggressively  restrained delivery, assemble much more than a top notch hip-hop concept-record; it’s a genre-defying piece of art, made all the more brilliantly strange by a ‘Baker Street’ saxophone sample on the second track.

FKA Twigs, another early favourite to win, attempts some equally exciting genre-defiance on her nominated debut, LP1.One part electronica, one part R&B, another part minimalist indie mind-blend, it’s a strange and wonderfully slick record, as impossible to pin down as it is to resist Twigs’ breathless, ethereal vocals. Add the obligatory progressive jazz efforts – this year in the forms of v2.0 by the fantastically named GoGo Penguin, and the understated yet entrancing In Each and Every One by Polar Bear – and this year’s shortlist shows us just how purposefully directionless our music landscape is becoming. It’s a year of innovation and subversion. And saxophones. Long live saxophones.

#2: Our music is making use of the raft of cultural influences in today’s society. But we’re not fully embracing our diversity.

Bombay Bicycle Club’s So Long, See You Tomorrow is their best album to date, and a worthy ‘Album of the Year’ nominee. It feels alive in a way that none of the other shortlisted albums do this year, thanks to the splashes of Indian, African, and Middle Eastern-influenced sounds that set each track on its own unique journey within the context of the record’s own concise trajectory. Writer and DJ Jameela Jamil said of the record that ‘it has so many influences from all over the world; you have no idea where you are when you’re listening to it…it really represents how incredibly brave, different and rule breaking British music has become’.

Whilst this is an entirely kind, and entirely true, summary of Bombay’s infectious record, it’s hard not to register the glaring omissions that So Long, See You Tomorrow brings to the fore in assembling a musical melting-pot of influences. Nowhere on this year’s shortlist, nor on any Mercury Prize shortlists in recent memory, do albums by artists furthering the profiles of specific musical sub-cultures tend to get rewarded. Despite the prominence of such genres – be they Metal, African, Indian or Classical – in modern music, they are rarely recognised by a Prize tasked with rewarding the best efforts across the whole of British society. This curious turn of the blind eye is reflected in the absence of virtually any Asian-influenced songs or albums in mainstream British charts.

There are valid counter-arguments to this; the Mercury Panel often responds well to genres like Jazz and Folk (Laura Marling is a favourite, and Nick Mulvey’s First Mind was an unexpected yet welcome inclusion amongst this year’s nominees), and a spot for Dead by Young Fathers on this year’s shortlist represents a significant step towards the embracement of our cultural and musical landscape. The alt hip-hop trio combine traditional Scottish and African sounds with urban psychedelia – it’s as strange and as pleasingly diverse as it sounds. A nomination for such a band is a notable progression, but the Prize arguably still needs to warm to the breadth of musical subcultures and non-ironic usage of culturally attributable themes in British music, instead of rewarding a faceless list of shiny, quasi-dance indie records – see Jungle by Jungle on this year’s shortlist.

#3: We’re increasingly comfortable in recognising that where we’ve been is as important as where we’re going musically.

On this year’s shortlist, there are two albums that stand out very clearly as instant classics. One is Royal Blood by Royal Blood. The other, somewhat surprisingly, is One Breath, by the enigmatic Anna Calvi. Both feel very much set apart from the rest of the shortlist by their scale, their scope, their ambition, and their ability to embrace the heritage of their music whilst making unique, groundbreaking artistic statements in their own right. Calvi’s record channels the dark, operatic stylings of Muse into the artistic austerity of David Bowie or PJ Harvey, but at no point does her sound feel like anything other than her own; there’s a hypnotic timelessness to her forceful, haunting second album, the kind of which makes the lingering sounds of One Breath difficult to shift. She may be the outside runner in the home stretch to Wednesday’s ceremony.

It’s difficult to applaud anything about Royal Blood’s debut that hasn’t already been applauded many times over. For anyone unfamiliar, they put the music of The White Stripes, The Black Keys,  Queens Of The Stone Age and all subsequent influences over heat, add some blistering bass guitar riffs and rhythms, melt it down and refine the remnants into something entirely, originally, really, really bloody good. They’re probably going to win on Wednesday. They probably should. Royal Blood and Anna Calvi exhibit just how precious our musical heritage is to us; both artists have taken inspiration from the forms, frames and figures of the past, and have found ways to expand upon them with ingenuity and originality.

This particular conclusion can be drawn out a little more (hope you’re okay for salt). Every Mercury Prize can almost always be defined by a relationship between two of the shortlisted albums – the timeless record by a music legend, and the debut by an unknown artist that captures the present, and frames the future, of our music landscape. It’s a relationship that bookends every shortlist, whether consciously or not, and is at the root of each year’s obligatory debate – where are we going musically? Is music still as good as it was? In 2010, the two albums were by Paul Weller and The xx. In 2012, Richard Hawley and alt-J. In 2013, David Bowie and James Blake (not his debut, but you get the idea). This year, they’re Everyday Roots by Damon Albarn and Total Strife Forever by East India Youth. And don’t they make for a great debate.

The former is a career defining move by the frontman of Blur and Gorillaz, described by Albarn himself as ‘his most personal record to date’. East India Youth’s debut is a shimmering, electronic masterpiece spliced with strange and glorious melodies and moods. It has the same effect on listeners that alt-J’s debut had two years ago  – as though one is hearing an album from the future that has every business being here now.

Of this year’s ‘bookenders’, the crucial observation to make is that Everyday Roots and Total Strife Forever aren’t a naturally fractious pairing; they sit quite contentedly – if indifferently – alongside each other in a year when the Mercury Prize shortlist and British music generally appear starkly more comfortable embracing heritage at the same time as looking to the future. Last year’s shortlist was awash with strong chart performers and teen-friendly cult music. This year, the panel have embraced anything and everything from the longlist, and the shortlist – steeped in musical history but looking newer than ever – shines as a result. In this sense, there’s never been a more exciting time for British music; it’s not at a crossroads, but a turning point.

#4: We probably make the best music in the world.

Make sure to watch Wednesday’s ceremony. The shortlist might be flawed by its very function, but a more exciting ensemble of live televised performances you won’t find anywhere else. It’s what we do best. And this year we’ve done it pretty damn well.

 

The Mercury Prize Awards Ceremony will take place on Wednesday the 29th October, with live coverage on More4 from 21:30. Full coverage of the Ceremony is aired at 23:40 on the 31st October on Channel 4.

One comment

  1. Royal Blood is a cracking release, but I don’t want it to win, because I don’t want RB to succumb to the curse. Let Albarn have it, it’ll keep him quiet for a while.

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