Batting for England: a Nationwide Mercury Prize Preview
On Tuesday, September 4th the winner of the 2007 Nationwide Mercury Prize will be announced. The typically diverse shortlist includes the following twelve albums:
Amy Winehouse - Back to Black
Arctic Monkeys - Favourite Worst Nightmare
Basquiat Strings - Basquiat Strings with Seb Rochford
Bat For Lashes - Fur and Gold
Dizzee Rascal - Maths + English
Fionn Regan - The End of History
Jamie T - Panic Prevention
Klaxons - Myths of the Near Future
Maps - We Can Create
New Young Pony Club - Fantastic Playroom
The View - Hats Off to the Buskers
The Young Knives - Voices of Animals and Men
So what do some CD Times writers think of the 2007 list and the prize in general? And who are they tipping to win?
"While one hesitates to be too sniping about an award that at least tries to pull in a handful of left-field nominees, a formula has clearly emerged over the years. Stick in a few indie bands, something edgily classical, a dance-indie crossover act, folky singer-songwriter, an 'urban' act. If that sounds too cynical, then any list that puts forward The View, Jamie T and The Young Knives as representative of the best of this year's indie pop deserves, at the very least, a dig in the ribs. If not a kick in the goolies.
Negatives aside, the Mercury undoubtedly offers valuable publicity to those yet to sell more than a box of records. The winner's sales typically rocket. Instantly dismissing half the list because they don't need it then, that leaves us with an easier artistic choice. Based on ambition and creativity my vote goes to the dazzling Bat for Lashes whose Fur and Gold is a record of other-worldly grace and timeless craft. Natasha Khan's unconventional approach is far more accessible than it might initially appear and certainly deserves a wider audience."
"Mercury judging panels are an unknown quantity, so predicting what they'll choose is tough. This year it's particularly difficult as a lot of rather mediocre music has been nominated. Winehouse and the Klaxons stand a decent chance, as does Jamie T; of those three, I’d like to see the big-haired drunkard take the honours, but Back to Black is far from being the best album on the shortlist. It's perilously difficult, this year, trying to find a nominated album that really speaks of genuine creative inspiration, of a real desire to make something truly special, something, as erstwhile bearded seven-day-sex-machine Craig David would have it, 'slicker than your average.' In fact, I'd say, there are only two nominated records this year truly deserving of the Mercury.
The first is the Basquiat Strings record. Admittedly, I didn't obtain a copy until these nominations were released, but this in itself speaks volumes. Whilst I'd never advocate pure populism with regard to the Mercurys – we have the Brits for that - Basquiat Strings is yet another example of the judging panel picking a token jazz or token folk record, simply to fulfil a remit of enforced eclecticism and give an impression of the Mercury prize as something a little more cultured and intellectual than other awards. Certainly, this is precisely what it should be, but such peacemeal gestures aren't the way forward; if, one of these years, they're not going to give the award to the rank outsider, then I believe it's high time that this annual patronising condescension to those working outside the most popular styles was done away with. If there's ever been a year, however, when the 'obscure' choice deserves the prize, then this is it; Basquiat Strings is deep, challenging, thrilling and utterly marvellous. The only other record truly worthy of a prize that ought to still carry some weight – though with a dull shortlist like this year's it begins to lose some credibility – is Fur and Gold, by Bat for Lashes. So much has been said about this album that it's not worth your time to hear me go into details; suffice to say that Natasha Khan's voice is unique, important, and thoroughly deserving of the recognition that I sincerely hope the Mercury panel may bestow upon her.
And the other nominations? New Young Pony club, with their pleasant enough, but derivative and unambitious album, don't deserve the prize. Neither do the Young Knives; the Mercury site hails them as 'innovative and original,' but if that's the case then it's less of an acclamation of their talents, and more of an indictment of the general state of guitar bands in Britain. Dizzee Rascal's Maths + English is a fine piece of work, but whilst I wouldn't begrudge him another victory, his latest release is, for the most part, very much Dizzee Rascal doing his Dizzee Rascal schtick; this is entertaining enough, certainly, but he's capable of more. Fionn Regan is pleasant, and certainly a cut above most of the current plague of singer-songwriters, but the music on his album isn't vital, isn't special enough, to deserve a Mercury prize. Though a different kettle of fish entirely, the same could probably be said of the Maps album.
Which brings us to the final two nominees; Arctic Monkeys and The View. The former were an average indie band when they stormed to power and won last year's prize. They haven't improved. Last year, with a shortlist featuring albums of such inspired creativity as Guillemots' Through the Windowpane, Richard Hawley's Cole's Corner, Thom Yorke's The Eraser and Campbell & Lanegan's Ballad of the Broken Seas, the Arctics' Whatever People Say I Am… didn't deserve to win. This year, Favourite Worst Nightmare is even less worthy of the award. Alex Turner is no poet. His songs are dull, his singing is lifeless and his band are the worst kind of grimy mess. What is more, in creating the belief that average guitar music is great guitar music, they opened the floodgates to a whole raft of vastly below-average guitar music masquerading as fun, literate pop. This, my friends, is why The View, a band representing the very nadir of 'indie', a band lacking in intellgence, ability, ambition and talent, have been nominated for what should be the most prestigious album award in the land. If I wear the same pair of trousers for four days in a row, it doesn't make me an insightful songwriter with a deft lyrical touch and a keen eye for the British condition; it makes me a slightly smelly slob. If The View win the Mercury, I'm leaving the country."
"I like the Mercury Music Prize and always look forward to (a) the shortlist and (b) the announcement of the winner. There, I said it. Music is (and perhaps always has been) seen as the lowest form of expression: sold as three minute bites on MTV or radio, piled up in supermarkets as if no different from cans of beans, a sort of anyone-can-do-it afterthought in any garden celebrity's gameplan (even when 'music' would seem to be their main trade).
The Mercury Music prize, you see, treats music as art. To some extent, it doesn't matter who wins, or even who's nominated, just that music is put on a platform where it can be discussed seriously, dissected and considered in (almost) the same way as one might a decent novel . It's the fact that anyone - from M People (even though I fucking hate them) to Antony and the Johnsons - can win that makes it interesting. Unlike the Brit Awards, it's never a forgone conclusion.
With that in mind, I can only usefully say who I want to win, not who will win. And, really, there's only one record on the list I'm rooting for this year - and that's Bat For Lashes' Fur And Gold. It's by no means a perfect album (then - one asks as they get older - what is?), but Natasha Khan has a quality lacking in that of the other artists on the list (or at least the ones I've heard). Listening to Fur and Gold (or indeed catching Natasha and her bandmates live) is like being carted off to another world for a short time; a place of heightened emotion, desire, and sex, all mixed up in weirdy mystical trappings. Sure, she draws on various other female artists - Bjork, Kate Bush, PJ Harvey even -, as well as David Lynch (which can never be a bad thing), but I think she's more than the sum of her influences and her voice really is stunning. Fur and Gold has also spawned some perfect pop singles (Trophy, What's A Girl To Do?), which makes you wonder why you haven't heard them on the radio more often. (Mind you, getting a chance to see them up close in an intimate venue earlier in the year made me somewhat glad the secret wasn't totally out yet.)
Oh, I also want Bat For Lashes to win because I have a tenner on them. Who said music isn't about making money?"
"'We're very, very pleased because it's just good tunes, that's what we try to do. There are no tricks. Too many people try to do too many tricks.'
Alex Turner, on receiving the Mercury Prize in 2006
Hot Chip wuz robbed. Last year's decision to give the prize to the mind-numbingly dull Arctic Monkeys, the limits of whose musical ambition can be garnered from the quote handily presented above, was a victory for the chugging and straightforward over the forward thinking, the staid over the fresh and the 'authentic' over the 'synthetic'. There's a score to settle and the only way the Mercury panel can right their wrong and distance themselves from such outrageously outdated ideals is by presenting this year's prize to Myths of the Near Future, the most daring, exciting record on 2007's shortlist.
Who of the other nominated artists can boast a more breathless, giddy rush than Atlantis to Interzone or a track more luxurious and streamlined than As Above So Below? Where else on that list can you find a record where tracks as diverse as the pitch-perfect pop of Golden Skans, the hypnotic squall of Isle of Her and all-out aural assault of Four Horsemen Of 2012 are as skilfully melded into a perfectly cohesive whole? The answer is simply that you can't.
The way Klaxons played the media was breathtakingly audacious, regaling tales of MDMA-fuelled mayhem and rave culture to cultivate huge expectation and an imaginary scene they never dreamt would be actually be realised (that it was is the only downside to their story). At the same time the trio were crafting an album that didn't fit any of the pigeonholes the hype had shoehorned them into, and the Emperor's new set of colourful skinny jeans and ghastly day-glo hoodies was revealed to be a curtain from behind which the most ridiculous, ambitious and downright WEIRD slab of pop music the last 12 months has seen crashed into second place in the UK album chart. For sheer audacity, wit and chutzpah alone they deserve to take the prize. The fact that they conjured up such an odd, beguiling, downright wonderful album in the process cements the deal."
"Well, this is unexpected. When the Mercury shortlist is announced, it's generally the case that I have a clear favourite from the get-go. I was a champion of Hot Chip in 2006, The Go! Team the year prior. It's always a comfort to have such a clear-cut fave from the outset, and this is why 2007's list is infuriating to me. The fact that I can only whittle it down to three options could be a sign of the current music scene's wide-ranging breadth and quality. I concur that the Mercury are, frankly, just messing with me…
So, who is it to be then? The dark horse of the comp is, naturally, Bat For Lashes aka Natasha Khan. Mercury love those artists who bring something a bit left-field to the table, and the wistful and dreamlike tales told on Fur and Gold – not to mention a breathtaking live show – are just the (slightly 'off') ticket. Although her sound references Kate Bush and the general 'ethereal songstress' template, Khan is undoubtedly the most original artist on the bill.
However, she didn't encourage a whole bunch of glum youths, lifelessly bobbing their heads at dull indie gigs, to travel from Atlantis to Interzone via the neon-ravaged dancefloor. Klaxons did. Since the dawn of the new millennium, Klaxons are probably the closest thing we've seen to a zeitgeist-defining band. Whether 'nu-rave' is something to love or detest – one could argue it doesn't even, and never really did, exist – Myths of the Near Future, the trio's debut, revitalised dance music and pop music besides. The cover of Grace's Not Over Yet was a cheeky nod to their apparent rave leanings despite, elsewhere, the album revelling in its own 21st Century prog-rock-dance mashup, dropping beats AND bombs.
Ultimately, though, it pains me to admit that the album that just edges it for me is the work of an artist who could do with less public and critical recognition. Amy Winehouse, God bless her, is the bookies' favourite and will most certainly (if she shows up, of course!) use the event as an occasion to down some free wine and continue her speedy freefall into self-destruction. No-one wishes that on her, although she could do with a slap on the wrist for her recent behaviour, and Back to Black is a testament to what this woman could be capable of if she only got her act together. An immediate modern-Motown classic upon its release last year, it absolutely trounced her debut Frank and announced Winehouse to the world as a fully-realised vocal talent and star. Rehab might have been overplayed but still manages to be faultless, and there's more where that came from here. It's just a shame you’re more likely to find Amy herself using the CD case to snort a line off rather than doing her job and turning up to her gigs. For this reason, Bat For Lashes and Klaxons are worthier contenders. The View? They can fuck off."