Let’s Get Cynical About: The Mercury Prize

Yes, I’m a bit slow on the uptake I know. But I wanted to give each of the albums a reasonably thorough listening before spouting off about them, and I’d heard less than half the list beforehand. Unfortunately, Sensible Shoes by Led Bib isn’t to be found on Spotify, or Last FM, or anywhere else that I could think of, so I’ll have to leave it out of my critique. But here’s my take on the 11 other Mercury nominated albums, in reverse order of personal preference.

11. Glasvegas – Glasvegas

Glasvegas - Glasvegas

Glasvegas – Glasvegas

You may be surprised to find an ‘indie’ album at the bottom of this list, but in my opinion Glasvegas are shit.

Ok, maybe ‘shit’ is too strong a word when you consider the sweeping strains of ‘Geraldine’ and the heartfelt, tub-thumping bellow of ‘Daddy’s Gone’, but beyond that I honestly don’t think they’ve got much going for them. The swathes of guitar noise that define the album are too often dragged down by awkward nursery rhyme/playground chant lyrics – see ‘It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry’, which features James Allan singing “liar, liar pants on fire” more earnestly than any grown man ever should, or the mawkish chorus of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ that’s extraneously tacked onto the end of ‘Flowers And Football Tops’. And at worst, the album ignores the band’s strengths entirely – as on ‘Stabbed’, which is basically just Allan monologuing morbidly over Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’. By the time I’ve arrived at dreary album-closer ‘Ice Cream Van’, I’d pretty much fallen asleep – how Glasvegas have received such widespread praise for an album with so few highlights is beyond me.

10. La Roux – La Roux

La Roux - La Roux

La Roux – La Roux

Ah, La Roux. Catapulted into the spotlight and duly embraced by the British public after a string of admittedly very good singles (‘Quicksand’, ‘In For The Kill’, ‘Bulletproof’), I’d almost be disappointed that the quality of the singles hasn’t carried over to the album… if that fact wasn’t so damn predictable. Front-loaded to the extreme in typical pop record fashion, after it’s dispensed with its singles and ‘Tigerlily’, (which is fairly decent despite a bizarre ‘Thriller’ pastiche towards the end), it quickly tails off into dull, dull, dull territory. ‘Cover My Eyes’ is a yawnsome sub R’n’B ballad, ‘Armour Love’ is so sluggish that it makes me feel like I’ve been tranquillised, and there’s a song called ‘Fascination’ that’s so full of nothing that it makes me long for the Alphabeat track of the same name. And I love video game style synths as much as the next geek, but tracks like ‘I’m Not Your Toy’ and ‘As If By Magic’ just manage to make them sound trite and formulaic – not to mention that by the time that ‘Reflections Are Protection’ rolls around, there’s a nagging feeling that the album has descended into repetition.

Overall, I can sum up my opinion of La Roux’s nomination in four words: Little Boots was robbed.

9. Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew

Lisa Hannigan - Sea Sew

Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew

This year’s ‘token folk’ nomination is Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan, who (like me) you may have heard without realising – she made major contributions to Damien Rice’s first two albums. However, after their writing and touring partnership ended in 2007, she returned to Ireland to record her debut solo album, Sea Sew – and from its handmade patchwork artwork and the fact that it contains a song called ‘Splishy Splashy’, it’s clear without listening that it’s all going to be very lovely. Indeed, even after listening, the word ‘lovely’ is pretty much all that comes to mind. Hannigan’s quietly beautiful vocal glides over gentle acoustic strums and graceful strings – it’s all just rather nice really. Thankfully, just as the album threatens to make you zone out completely, it mixes things up a little – ‘I Don’t Know’ is cute, catchy and has a pleasing simplicity about it, and the minor key tones of ‘Keep It All’ make a welcome change. But then it returns to ‘lovely’ territory again – even album-closer ‘Lille’ is overshadowed by its cutesy pop-up book video.

It seems harsh to place this album so low largely for the crime of being ‘too nice’ – indeed, in my opinion it’s markedly better than the previous two albums – but unfortunately it just doesn’t grab me enough to warrant a higher position. Sorry about that, Lisa.

8. Florence & The Machine – Lungs

Florence & The Machine - Lungs

Florence & The Machine – Lungs

Like La Roux, Florence Welch (otherwise known as Florence & The Machine) was another female artist who was hotly-tipped at the beginning of the year, and she makes it higher on the list than the red-haired one largely on the basis that her Kate-Bush-lite schtick is more interesting than La Roux’s one-dimensional electro. ‘Dog Days Are Over’ and ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’, start the album compellingly enough with blissfully ethereal vocals, dreamy instrumentation and harmonious chanting. Thankfully, the quality doesn’t completely drop off after the first two tracks – ‘Howl’, ‘Drumming Song’ and ‘Cosmic Love’ are all suitably dramatic, and the scuzzy guitar of ‘Kiss With A Fist’ provide a good contrast to the rest of the album. It’s not without it’s duds, however – ‘I’m Not Calling You A Liar’ merely plods along, and ‘Girl With One Eye’ is a lethargic warbling exercise that’s also rather creepy. The decision to tack her cover of ‘You’ve Got The Love’ on the end is potentially a double-edged sword as well. It’s good, yes, but it threatens to become her ‘Hounds Of Love’ – except, unlike The Futureheads, she hasn’t truly made the song her own.

At the end of the day, however, the main reason I can’t place Lungs any higher than this on my list is that there’s already a far better ethereal pop album present (take a bow, Two Suns). Florence & The Machine’s effort is certainly far from unlistenable, but it lacks the truly jaw-dropping highlights that Natasha Khan’s record has in abundance.

7. Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Twice Born Men

Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Twice Born Men

Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Twice Born Men

I’d never heard anything at all about Sweet Billy Pilgrim prior to this year’s Mercury nominations, but upon listening to the opening track of Twice Born Men I was prepared to be blown away – ‘Here It Begins’, with its majestic instrumental build-up and world-weary, spoken word lyrics, almost signalled the beginning of something brilliant. As it turns out, I wasn’t quite as amazed by the rest of the album as I’d hoped – but I was nevertheless very pleasantly surprised. ‘Truth Only Smiles’ is a charming, pretty, multi-instrumental ballad, while ‘Bloodless Coup’ has an air of quiet melancholy about it. As a whole, the album is well composed, thoughtfully textured and beautifully played… and yet, it has a tendency to just drift past, barely noticed, like a quiet breeze. Depending on what you want from your music, that may or may not be what you’re looking for – for me, the shimmering beauty of Twice Born Men is easy to like, but difficult to truly fall in love with. Nevertheless, it’s an accomplished album that’s deserving of a place on the shortlist.

6. Kasabian – West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum

Kasabian - West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum

Kasabian – West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum

If you were surprised by Glasvegas’ placing then you may well be balking that Kasabian have even ended up this high. In truth, I wasn’t convinced by West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum at first – but with repeated listens the number of dud tracks seemed to steadily decrease. ‘Fire’ was an instant winner with its jaunty, wild-west verses and anthemic chorus, as were the fuzzy bass and thumping beats of ‘Vlad The Impaler’. ‘Take Aim’, ‘Underdog’ and ‘Fast Fuse’ were also fairly quick to impress, but it’s when the band attempt to break from their usual sonic template that the songs take a little longer to reveal their charms. Drowned in Sound pointed out that ‘Thick As Thieves’ has more than an air of The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’ about it, but it works just about passably with the bands’ swaggering demeanour, while ‘Secret Alphabets’ isn’t any worse off for trying to sound a bit like psychadelic-era Beatles. On the other hand, ‘West Ryder Silver Bullet’ attempts to take a crack at being ‘epic’, but ultimately ends up sauntering around aimlessly for five minutes without really going anywhere. Album-closer ‘Happiness’ is also pretty much an outright dud, with the best word I can use to describe it being ‘nice’ – and when the Gospel choir kicks in you’ll probably think “WTF? This isn’t Kasabian.”

It’s good to see the band trying something a bit different, but most of the best tracks on West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum are the ones where they sound like the ‘old’ Kasabian. Maybe that opinion aligns me closer than I’d like to the lager-lads who the band seem to be perpetually linked with, but hey, I’m just calling it how I see it.

5. Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy

Speech Debelle - Speech Therapy

Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy

It’s good to see Speech Debelle continuing the trend of ‘token urban’ nominations that are far from ‘token’ (never mind the fact that I’ve no clue what ‘urban’ is supposed to mean these days). If there’s one thing that Speech Therapy does well is throw ‘urban’ stereotypes out of the window within its first two tracks – the plaintive guitar of opener ‘Searching’ is disarming, and second track ‘The Key’ features clarinets. Yes, clarinets! Bog-standard beats ‘n’ rhymes rap this ain’t. Of course, all that would count for very little if the eclectic instrumentation wasn’t matched with a solid flow – thankfully, Speech has effortlessly affecting rhymes in spades. And they’re spoken from the heart – ‘Go Then, Bye’ tackles break-ups without being trite, ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ is an emotionally raw, yet calmly restrained attack on Speech’s absent father, and title track ‘Speech Therapy’ is both a crucial insight into Speech’s motivations and a moving tribute to her mother.

To ignore Speech Debelle simply because she’s an ‘urban’ artist, or because she’s a rapper, would be foolish indeed – she provides an emotional and thought-provoking view into a world that you may not have even considered thinking about.

4. The Invisible – The Invisible

The Invisible - The Invisible

The Invisible – The Invisible

The Invisible were surely one of this year’s more unexpected nominations, but their self-titled debut is certainly deserving of the exposure. It takes a little while to get going – ‘Constant’ is a slow-burner that sounds like the moody, disaffected cousin of Bloc Party’s ‘Banquet’, but once the funky bass of ‘London Girl’ kicks in the album rarely looks back. ‘Baby Doll’ is subtly builds up to an understatedly anthemic chorus, ‘Monster’s Waltz’ bubbles along pleasingly before breaking out into a wall of guitars, and ‘Ok’ is just pure feel-good funk. The band also know how to switch things up a little – ‘Climate’ features oppressive synths building up to an urgent coda, while ‘Tally Of Souls’, shows that a sparse acoustic guitar also works well as a backdrop for David Okumu’s gently soulful voice. But just as you think the album’s pace has dropped off completely, ‘Time Waits’ smacks you in the face with a blast of raw guitar to take the album out on a high.

The Invisible may have been a surprising nomination, it would surely be an even more surprising winner – but that shouldn’t stop you from giving it a listen. You may well like what you hear.

3: Friendly Fires – Friendly Fires

Friendly Fires - Friendly Fires

Friendly Fires – Friendly Fires

In a review on my previous blog, I called the debut record by Friendly Fires “one of [2008’s] most effortlessly listenable albums”, and I’m sure anyone who’s had this album on repeat will agree with me. From the samba rhythms of ‘Jump In The Pool’, through the wide eyed, hopeful euphoria of ‘Paris’ and the Hot Chip-esque funk of ‘On Board’, all the way to the sinister guitar and dark emotion of ‘Ex Lover’, the band switch styles while maintaining an effortless sense of coherence and flow. Friendly Fires has both hands in the air moments (‘Skeleton Boy’) and touches of understated brilliance  (‘In The Hospital’) – indeed, the only reason that this album doesn’t rank as the best of the Mercury nominees this year in my eyes is that it doesn’t have anything quite as good as the best tracks on the two albums at the top of my list. But that’s just me nitpicking – in reality, the quality of songs on Friendly Fires is so consistently good that it would be as worthy winner as either Two Suns or Primary Colours.

2: Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Bat For Lashes - Two Suns

Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Bat For Lashes was a hot favourite to bag the Mercury Prize two years ago with her debut album Fur And Gold, and some would argue she was duly robbed by Klaxons (who, for the record, were surprising but worthy winners in my eyes). She more than deserves a second go round this time though – Two Suns is an absolutely stunning record. Bombastic, jaw-dropping centre-piece ‘Siren Song’ is almost worthy of the prize on its own, while ‘Glass’ and ‘Two Planets’ are both spectacular highlights, featuring thundering drums, atmospheric instrumentation and soaring vocals in equal measure. Crucially, she’s also capable of mixing her ethereal stylings with pop sensibilities, as demonstrated perfectly on singles ‘Daniel’ and ‘Sleep Alone’. She handles her slower numbers well too – ‘Moon And Moon’ is a beautiful piano ballad, and her fragile, haunting duet with Scott Walker on ‘The Big Sleep’ wraps up the album perfectly.

I would certainly have no complaints if Natasha Khan walked away a winner on her second try – the only reason that Two Suns doesn’t make the top of this list is that it’s not as startling a jump forward as Primary Colours is. What it is, however, is a masterful progression from the already very solid foundations of Fur And Gold – this album deserves your attention.

1: The Horrors – Primary Colours

The Horrors - Primary Colours

The Horrors – Primary Colours

Who’d have thought it? This time two years ago, I doubt the Mercury judges were rushing to nominate Strange House – although maybe they should have been, it was miles better than The View’s debut for fuck’s sake. However, two years and one almost completely different album later, The Horrors are on the shortlist, and it’s not hard to see why – critics have fallen head over heels with the band’s second album. Whatever influences you may pick out on Primary Colours, chances are that they were already present in their impressive record collections even around the time of Strange House. This is just them realising their potential by exploring a different set of influences and making a bloody brilliant album.

From the dark, queasy swirls of ‘Mirror’s Image’ through to the astonishing 8-minute soundscape of ‘Sea Within A Sea’, the album rarely falters. ‘Who Can Say’ sees Faris tackle fading love with surprising sincerity as his band create a wall of relentless beats and guitar fuzz, while ‘Scarlet Fields’ is a hazy masterpiece of understated bass and swirling synths. It’s not perfect of course – ‘I Only Think Of You’ drags on for a little too long and ‘I Can’t Control Myself’ isn’t quite as good as everything else in my opinion, but overall these are minor complaints. If you didn’t like The Horrors before, put aside any prejudice you previously had for them and give this a listen – and if you did like them before, prepare to fall in love with them in a whole new way.

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One response to “Let’s Get Cynical About: The Mercury Prize

  1. Pingback: A Weekend In The City, pt I « Let's Get Cynical

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