The Mercury Prize nominations for 2012 were announced on 12 September and drew a fairly consistent response from the media (including The Founder) along the lines of “Who?” and “So What?”. Is that a fair response? And if so, what does that mean for the future relevance of a prize for albums and for albums themselves.
First though, a look the shortlist itself which is dominated by folk or soul singers of one sort or another.
Michael Kiwanuka, the BBC Sound of 2012 winner at the start of the year, is nominated for Home Again, an album crossing folk and soul in the Bill Withers school, which is consistently pleasant but also consistently dull – there’s good reason why he hasn’t broken through commercially despite the predictions.
Sam Lee is the purest folk singer on the list with an album, Ground Of Its Own, which has its moments (particularly the opening track ‘The Ballad of George Collins’) but is unlikely to win over a wider cross section of listeners.
Ben Howard’s Every Kingdom is a rockier folk album, popular at the moment with examples such as Mumford and Sons, Noah and the Whale and Jack Johnson . It starts of slowly but gets livelier and rockier a third of its way into the album.
Surprisingly, the least folky nomination in this group comes from the most established artist on the shortlist, Richard Hawley and his latest, Standing on the Sky’s Edge. This has received near universal acclaim, but I think the album is overrated and Hawley’s move towards a rock sound a mistake – the parts of the album that work best are the slower songs, particularly the title track.
So far, then, The Founder’s music editor view in the Fresher’s edition that it’s all a bit Radio 2 appears to be justified. That view gains further currency when considering the soul artists on the list.
As well as Kiwanuka’s bland offering, we have Jessie Ware’s Devotion, described glowingly by one critic as ‘restrained soul.’ I agree with the label, but not the sentiment, because if there is one thing soul should never be, it’s restrained, yet here is an album that manages to make Sade appear like James Brown.
‘Restrained soul’ could also describe aspects of Lianne La Havas’s, album Is your Love Big Enough, although the comparison here is at least with the likes of Amy Winehouse. The album also successfully references the jazz idiom, particularly in ‘Age,’ ‘Forget’ and the ballad duet with Willy Mason, ‘No Room for Doubt.’
Nevertheless, it is disappointing that the shortlist includes albums by three artists (if you include Kiwanuka) who are of such similar artistic temperament. And still nothing that couldn’t be played on Radio 2.
Indie rock is represented by three acts. The most established is The Maccabees with Given to the Wild. Despite two strong tracks (lead single ‘Pelican’ and the sublime ‘Unknown’), the album as a whole shows its debt to Coldplay too heavily and suffers from the poverty, and repetitiveness, of its lyrics.
Alt-J were tipped for the Prize for their debut An Awesome Wave before the shortlist was announced, and have been hailed as the ‘The new Radiohead’ (possibly because both bands have members whose parents couldn’t spell the name ‘Tom’?). I would be tempted to amend that comparison to ‘Restrained Radiohead’ and note that not only are they mature-radio-station friendly but one of the tracks, ‘Something Good’, will already be familiar to fans of the current Halifax advertising campaign. Nevertheless, it is one of the stronger albums on the list.
Django Django’s eponymous debut temporarily overtook Alt-J as a bookies’ favourite. Their leftfield brand of indie invites comparison with The Bees and (pre Mobile Disco) Simian, mixing psychedelic electronics with 60s guitars. I like this album a lot, but the niggling concern about the safety of its inclusion on the list may work against it.
Field Music are relative veterans on the list, with Plumb their fourth album. Hard to categorise, I place them somewhere in the progressive rock spectrum between 70s groups Yes and Pink Floyd, but unlike either of those bands (or their own previous albums) the brevity of the tracks is more punk – nothing last more than four minutes, and two of the tracks are less than a minute. Interesting, but there is a reason that they haven’t broken through in three previous albums, and Plumb is too niche to enjoy wider success.
And this leaves us with the two most unique entries on the shortlist. First is the obligatory jazz album, Roller Trio, from a band so obscure you can’t listen to them on Spotify, can’t read about them on Wikipedia and the album reviews in the papers, are short, rare and mixed. Listening to this straight after Field Music, the debt owed to jazz by progressive rock become apparent (albeit, unlike Fieldd Music, here no track under four minutes). Being no expert on jazz, I’m in no position to judge if this is any good or not, although it seemed to me to be not be at either the avant garde end, nor so accessible to convert non-jazz listeners. No pure jazz album has ever won the Mercury Prize, and I can’t see this being any different.
And finally, to the biggest name on the shortlist, rapper Plan B and his nominated film soundtrack album, ill Manors. This returns Plan B to the raw rap roots of his brilliant 2006 debut, along with ironic and socially aware depiction of gang life in South London. What soul music there is, is largely left to his collaborators. This is a commercial album only to the extent that it happens to have sold well, but its success is still likely to be an obstacle to winning the prize. This would be a shame for a number of reasons, firstly, because it’s the only nomination on the shortlist that is unlikely to receive much in the way of airplay on Radio 2 – it’s far too urban, raw and angry.
For the other reason why Plan B should win, it is necessary to explore the reasons for the Prize and what should define a great album. In this day of digital music, the relevance of many albums deserves to be questioned. In its defence, Richard Hawley said that an album represents the main body of work of an artist.
That is true, but on that basis it is now just a showcase and not a unit of purchase. I used to buy albums (first vinyl, then CDs … I’m a mature student!) because it was the only way of hearing what this artist had to offer above their singles (if they produced any – which many of the acts I followed didn’t) which were usually designed to appeal to the broadest musical taste. It was nigh on impossible to listen to the output before deciding what to buy, and that left much power in the hands of record companies, and to some extent the artists.
Nowadays it is a simple matter for us to listen to an album first and then buy those bits we like, and ignore the bits we don’t. There are only two reasons to buy whole albums. First, and mainly, because you like all the songs on it and want to hear them again and again. Secondly, because the album as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts – either because it has an overt concept, or more subtly because listening to the songs together and in sequence is better than listening to isolated excerpts.
The Mercury Prize itself risks becoming irrelevant unless there is sufficient output from artists that meet at least the first criterion, and the evidence from the shortlists from the last few years is a resounding negative.
This year, I think only Django Django and Plan B meet the first criterion on the shortlist, and only Plan B meets both.