Mercury hopefuls revive the dying art of the long-player
For the chairman of the Mercury Prize judging panel, Simon Frith, the continuing existence of an award for “best album” remains proof that the long-playing format is still the best way of “organising music”. I’m not sure if the iTunes kids would be with you on that, Mr Frith, but if the album format does indeed “remain an unrivalled source of musical invention and imagination, a way of linking songs, exploring themes and developing sounds that is endlessly thrilling, surprising and worth celebration” (Mr Frith again), then you can put your negative-equity house on Elbow winning this year’s award come September.
Not only is Elbow’s The Seldom Seen Kid the best collection of songs on this year’s 12-strong Mercury shortlist of the best Irish and British albums of the last 12 months, but front man Guy Garvey is even more of a zealot for the album format than Frith. Garvey has said that online music stores such as iTunes are responsible for the album “dying as an art form” and has called on the site to allow artists the freedom to “lock” their albums. It’s not that he has any opposition to the single download; but bands such as his believe in recording a coherent set of songs for an album and that it should be the artist’s choice as to how this music is distributed and consumed. It might seem like a vaguely Stalinist/Maoist approach to personal music freedom, but Garvey, like many of his generation, strongly believes that the integrity of the album format and the much sweated-over track-listing ensures that each successive song somehow informs the other.
Certainly, there are stronger individual songs on some of the other albums on this year’s Mercury shortlist compared with Elbow’s album, but as a complete musical collection, The Seldom Seen Kid is the strongest effort.
The only thing that will prevent it winning is the Mercury judges’ rather distressing insistence on being ever so “street” in their final choice. It’s for this reason that the front-runners, Radiohead, won’t win (too predictable), and neither will The Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner for his The Last Shadow Puppets side-project.
You can immediately dismiss the usual “token” choices on the list. Estelle is only there as the token black R’n’B singer, and her album is really just one single and a whole load of filler. Similarly, the token modern jazz choice this year is Portico Quartet. However, the Mercury exposure could help them double their album sales – from three to six.
The token folk music pick this year is Rachel Unthank and the Winterset – an all-female quartet who, to be fair, are at least a fairly orthodox finger-in-the-ear grouping and not just some totty dreamed up by Simon Cowell on a day off.
The only out-and-out indie album on the list is by British Sea Power, and they should really make the most out of their 15 minutes; they’re very much also-rans here, as is Adele, who rather oddly beat off the far superior Duffy for the “solo white female singer” slot.
Neon Neon (featuring Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals) have done well to get so far, while the 18-year-old Laura Marling (who sounds like Joni Mitchell on a sugar rush) can surely build on her nomination.
The two acts who will run Elbow to the wire come the ceremony on September 9th are the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss pairing and Burial. Plant and Krauss’s Raising Sand is indisputably one of the best albums of the last five years, but the fact that Krauss is very much an American might well work against them.
Which leaves Burial – an anonymous dubstep musician from south London. Dubstep is very “here and now” in the music-style press and comes complete with the type of “urban authenticity” that gives the Mercury judges the warm glow of “contemporary relevance”. Sonically, it is a stirring and evocative piece of work that sounds like Aphex Twin producing very early Massive Attack. It’s Elbow’s year though.
Elbowing their way to the front of the Mercury pack