In traditional style, this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist has impressed and confounded me in equal measures. Congratulations are due to Florence & The Machine, Glasvegas, Friendly Fires, Speech Debelle, Bat For Lashes, La Roux, The Horrors, Lisa Hannigan, Led Bib, Sweet Billy Pilgrim… and, I suppose, if pushed, lad-rock terrace-chant favourites, Kasabian. Token surprising commiserations are also due to Doves, Manic Street Preachers, Jarvis Cocker, Patrick Wolf, Future Of The Left (who were never really going to be nominated, but still, I loved their album, and so did plenty of others), and everyone else who may conceivably have had a chance of making the shortlist.
Merely being mentioned in conjunction with the prize often has a helpful effect on sales figures, and of course, winning the prize is often seen as more of a curse than a blessing – after all, what became of Gomez, Talvin Singh and Roni Size? Here, then, is my brief rundown of the list, with some thoughts, feelings, and woeful predictions.
Bat For Lashes‘ sophomore album, Two Suns, is arguably the most consistently enjoyable entry on the shortlist. Musically stunning and frequently emotionally troubling, a victory for Natasha Khan would certainly be richly deserved.
Florence & The Machine has given us Lungs, which is a sonically diverse carnival of Kate Bush-esque gesturing and Bat For Lashes-lite. It’s the bookies’ favourite.
Friendly Fires produced one of the most entertaining albums of this twelve-month period with their eponymous debut, which combines percussive, frenetic, funk reminiscent of Talking Heads with a starry-eyed shoegaze surprise lurking in the guitars and synthesisers. My joint favourite to win, because I loved virtually every minute of it.
Glasvegas were hyped-up beyond all proportion by the most irritating man to ever write for the Guardian, Alan McGee, who said they were “more important than My Bloody Valentine” or some similar nonsense. They’re not. Their self-titled first album hints at shoegazey affectations, but does not marry this aesthetic to any particularly memorable tunes. Also, frontman James Allan’s vocals sound weird, as if they’ve been accidentally Auto-Tuned.
The Horrors have surely committed one of the great acts of musical reincarnation by following up over-hyped pesticide Strange House with this year’s stunning Primary Colours. Their undoubted love of great music has now been translated into a misty-eyed and thrilling set of songs that touch on krautrock and shoegaze as much as they do garage rock. Faris Badwan has also searched around in his cupboard and located his true voice – that of a doomed and tormented Robert Smith-style romantic. Music as miserable as this has never sounded so exhilarating. Along with Friendly Fires, this must surely be my personal favourite to win.
The Invisible have also named their first album after themselves. Unfortunately, it’s not on Spotify and I don’t own a copy of it, so my judgements of it are based on the contents of their MySpace music player, and the myriad interviews and articles they have inspired within the music press. A three-piece comprised of talented and knowledgeable session musicians and collaborators, The Invisible’s songs travel along wildly different vectors, from the hushed jazzy funk of single “London Girl” to the cut-up guitars of “OK”. From what I’ve heard of it, it’s pretty impressive, understated stuff, and these guys could pull of an unexpected victory and take home the prize.
Kasabian, having romped through the glammy electro-rock of Kasabian and Empire, return with West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum – an album of slightly unfashionable glammy electro-rock, now sealed with the production stamp of Dan The Automator. Why oh why?
La Roux have, imaginatively, named their debut album La Roux. A prime example of this year’s crop of female electro-pop artists, Elly Jackson has constructed a somewhat robotic album of new-romantic 80s pop songs, dealing with emotional breakdown and relationship breakups. It’s less cheesy than Little Boots, but boasts some of the biggest-selling singles of the year. Probable winner, much as I’d rather it didn’t.
Led Bib have secured this year’s token jazz vote with Sensible Shoes, a noisy and raucous offering. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and come on, it’ll clearly never win, but, being an outsider to the world of modern jazz (the closest recent album I can testify to owning is Antibalas’ thoroughly excellent Security), I’m not really in any position to suggest an alternative to this. If the judges wish to nominate a jazz album every year, why can’t they at least give one of them the prize, which would provide some level of vindication?
Lisa Hannigan, formerly backing singer for Damien Rice, spent two weeks making Sea Sew, and it’s a predictably lulling, folksy listen. Hannigan’s voice is particularly honeyed and soothing, in an agreeable, likeable way. The music is reminiscent of a more minimalist Belle & Sebastian. Without wishing to sound cynical, this is the token folk nomination, but it sounds like a lovely album of laid-back, idyllic music with interesting orchestral flourishes.
Speech Debelle has an interesting back-story that has been talked about elsewhere, and she draws on her childhood experiences in Speech Therapy, which is presumably the most exciting thing in British hip-hop right now, if you can look past the mainly tawdry offerings of commercially viable grime. At times, the backing music veers into lift-music territory, and her choice of words may sometimes seem a little platitudinous; again, I’m not really possessed of enough knowledge of the genre to suggest a better hip-hop album.
Sweet Billy Pilgrim‘s bewildering Twice Born Men is actually available on Spotify. Just like The Invisible, the band is comprised of three session musicians; unlike The Invisible, which was produced by avant-garde meister Matthew Herbert, Twice Born Men was cobbled together in a shed with some duct tape, one microphone, and a laptop. The album is surprisingly polished, but in a breathy, close-mic’ed way, and it takes in a variety of acoustic genres. I haven’t really had time to formulate a definitive opinion on it, but I’d be willing to bet that I won’t prefer it to some of the other albums that have missed out on this year’s shortlist – Further Complications, The Bachelor &c.
So, if you’re a betting man, you’ll probably want to go and place money on Florence & The Machine’s Lungs. I’m not, but come September 9th I will be sitting at home rooting for Friendly Fires and Primary Colours. I think Two Suns is probably a more accomplished album than both of those, but I personally was more entertained and emotionally moved by the first two. We’ll probably all be proven wrong though, and the world will have to face up to the fact that Kasabian are apparently bona-fide album artists.