Alt-J’s win at last night’s Mercury Prize saw the band occupying the rather strange role of simultaneously being the bookies favourites as well as the tipster’s outside pick.
Capping off a remarkable twelve months from the band, which has seen the group’s rapid ascent from mid-bill other-stage festival slots to daytime radio airplays. Such a climb, however, has evoked its detractors – meaning the fourpiece’s win will not be celebrated by many within their traditional fanbase. The decision and the consequential rejoice and dismay it has brought nonetheless shows what impact the Mercurys still have after 20 years.
Having been invited to attend our first ever Mercury ceremony, and the first in its new home of the Roundhouse, we donned our suit we only tend to wear for weddings, funerals and the occasional time we get a bit too serious whilst playing Football Manager, and headed to the Camden venue for the big event, trying not to let it be known that this was finally the night we get to break in our new pair of brogues. The switch can only be a good thing for the awards, as it moves from the industry-orientated Grosvenor Hotel to a location “with rich musical heritage”, as the evening’s host Lauren Laverne points out, and one more fitting to what the night should be celebrating.
And indeed, this shift of focus seems to be helped by the recent series of Mercury Prize live shows taking place at London’s LSO St. Luke’s over the past few months. There seems to be a sense that the Mercury organisers are acknowledging some criticism that has been aimed towards them in recent years, be it that they award too many major label acts or that their choices could often be considered “safe” options.
The fact that the winner of the evening goes to the bookies favourite won’t help the judges in this seemingly new slate after two decades of the trophy. ”The prize nobody really cares about was won by a band nobody really loves,” writes The Daily Telegraph’s Neil McCormick in his blog on alt-J’s scoop. Continuing: “The victory of Alt-J should be another nail in the coffin of the monumentally irrelevant Barclaycard Mercury Prize, which has, after 20 years of lukewarm controversy and pitiful prize money surely outlived its inscrutable purpose.”
But Alt-J’s success is a surprise if we take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Little over a year ago we ourselves were tipping this youthful-looking Cambridge-via-Leeds fourpiece after witnessing their buzzmaking set at Cardiff’s Swn Festival. Not even the most clued up tipsters back then would have rushed to their Twitter account and predicted such a rapid ascent from the Apple Mac keyboard enthusiasts in twelve months time. Alt-J’s debut is an album that has been heralded by both bloggers and radio listeners alike.
However, the backlash against the group has not been that it isn’t a good album, but that it arguably isn’t a great one either. “Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave combines unexpected shards of sound with mesmerising rhythms, compelling melodies and intriguing songs. A tantalising and delightful album,” said Simon Frith, the chair of Mercury judges, explaining the panel’s decision. For an accolade known for applauding pioneering music, this is hardly groundbreaking praise. At the same time, it could very easily be said that An Awesome Wave is hardly a groundbreaking album, unless you’re the type of person who think it’s “making guitar music cool again” – a phrase so foolish that it sounds like Putin talking about punk music. While it might indeed be a strong record, it will hardly pave the sound of music for years to come like Primal Scream, Pulp and even The Arctic Monkeys did. Even Alt-J themselves, ever down-to-earth, admitted they largely only like the album “because they made it”.
Perhaps the problem was not with Alt-J, though. Perhaps it’s merely down to the fact that no album has come out that has really made us sit up and pay attention. But despite its flurry of middling indie acts, the shortlist wasn’t totally void of innovation however. You won’t find it in the likes of Plan B’s archaic, misguided and misogynistic lyrics though. Instead it’s in Devotion, the debut album by Jessie Ware that we’ve long champion and to whom we would give the award if only they’d asked us, that you find dub and electronic influences mixed with soul, funk and pop overtones, all the while managing to exhibit characteristics wholly of its own niche. It’s pop music for a generation who can find an infinite of knowledge at just the click of a button or mouse. With Sam Lee, you lay witness to new life being carved into the well-trodden path of the singer-songwriter, proving the ever-crowded folk scene could still offer strength and eloquence of expression yet. Elsewhere Roller Trio manage the seemingly impossible task of making jazz actually accessible.
This year’s list, however, can be criticised quite reasonably for its lack of diversity. While the Mercury judges protest that their picks are not influenced by genre forms by any means, the lack of electronic-based music within the 2012 nominees cannot be ignored. The judges of the Mercury Prize have never been ones opposed to music of electronic means in the past, shortlisting the likes of Massive Attack, Prodigy, New Order way back to the award’s origins in 1992, even handing the award to Portishead for their trip-hop classic Dummy in 1995. This year sees electronic music at an all-time minimum, following on from last year’s perhaps excessive inclusion of the likes of James Blake, Katy B, Metronomy and Jon Hopkins. Actress and Rustie are only a few to create sonically mesmerising records shunned from a Mercury Prize nod this time round though. We can only hope that 2013 sees Berlin-based Brit producer Gold Panda create a second album so good that it simply cannot be ignored.
As Alt-J celebrate their surprise win, you truly see how much impact the Mercury Prize can have on a band’s career – in terms of money, fame and record sales. You hope they can only capitalise on this opportunity in the same way now-cool-household-names The xx have, rather than heading the same direction as, say, Speech Debelle. While it will always have its critics, it remains an award that gets people talking about the things that matter in music rather than staying at home and tweeting about the X-Factor. And surely, that has to be a good thing.