The Mercury Music Prize is to be approached with trepidation. What once used to be a barometer of cool and a sure-fire soundtrack for the next 11 months, the so-called curse that now surrounds the winner means that expectations are confused. Will the recipient become a national treasure and break new ground like double awardee PJ Harvey, or disappear in to the depths like the lesser-mentioned Speech Debelle? Despite dwindling media attention and arguments over the awards’ continuing relevance, the gong and its £20,000 cash prize remain a sought after honour for this generations cash-strapped musicians.
The shortlist itself was criticised for favouring a certain style of singer-songwriters that may not be wholly representative of the current musical landscape. Regardless of the deserved recognition of Lianne La Havas, Jessie Ware, Ben Howard, Michael Kiwanuka, Sam Lee and Richard Hawley, the fact they dominate the list means the detractors may have had a point. Plan B was nominated for his astute protest songs on album Ill Manors, and joining him were thoughtful and quirky indie boys The Maccabees, Field Music and Django Django. The annual jazz nomination this year went to Roller Trio, but it was the favourites from the beginning that walked off with the prize at London’s Roundhouse last week.
A four piece that met at Leeds University, the music of Alt-J bears hallmarks of tour mates, Wild Beasts plus post-2000 Radiohead, littering thoughtful, intimate musical combinations with multiple cultural and academic references. The sinister lyrics of single Breezeblocks were inspired by Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, Matilda is a homage to Luc Besson’s Leon, where Tessellate attempts the impossible in making geometry sexy.
From the start, dark 80s discordant riffs and the languorous vocals of lead singer Joe Newman captivate even the most casual of listeners. Combining diverse musical styles to create what some have awkwardly named ‘folk-step’, it’s probably more accurate to class Alt-J as intelligent alt-pop. Something Good employs intricate vocals that crawl in to the mind and fix themselves on repeat, whilst Dissolve Me is a bouncing, drug-addled love song. Fitzpleasure sets sail on growling rock guitars and heavy choral arrangements yet leads on to the understated, bhangra-infused Taro. Styles and stories combine to form an album that enthrals and surprises on each and every listen.
In a culture where music can easily become throwaway, the Mercury celebrates the creation of an album with staying power. Despite your opinion of its importance, simply being nominated is guaranteed to cause a surge in record sales, helping to steady the uncertain future of today’s aspiring pop star. As Alt-J continue their wave of success and use their newly won spoils to create album number two, it’s exciting to see where these boys will innovate next. And if nothing else, we now all know how to do this ∆ on our computer.