That Was The Best Mercury Prize In Years

Young Fathers’ win crowns a great campaign…

Waking up this morning, it seems Young Fathers really did win the Mercury Prize for their excellent-indeed, 9/10-rated ‘Dead’ album, issued at the beginning of the year by the right-on-form Big Dada. This makes me very happy. I think the Mercury Prize of 2014 has been the best in ages.

Firstly, Young Fathers won. Sounds simple, but it’s the most pertinent point I’m going to make. Their ‘Dead’ is a tremendous album, and one that makes much clearer sense when partnered with the trio’s incredibly physical live presence. It’s important that a less-fancied act led the way in 2014, as while there’s plenty to be said as to the merits of long-players from FKA twigs, Damon Albarn, Royal Blood and Bombay Bicycle Club, one would have to ask if those acts need either the exposure or the cash, going forward into their next project. Young Fathers are already working on a follow-up to ‘Dead’ – which may or may not arrive sooner than you’d think – and that financial boost will do them a world of good, inevitably facilitating the realisation of ambitions that they’d otherwise struggle to achieve.

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Young Fathers, ‘Get Up’, from ‘Dead’

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Young Fathers’ win also highlights the great diversity that exists in this country’s musical underground. Their rise to this moderate level of recognition has not been an easy one, and certainly isn’t assisted by botched reporting on who they are by the likes of Metro (oh, dear), or the dismissive copy of renowned sultan of smugness Neil McCormick (seriously, read what this condescending stain of a critic wrote in the wake of their win). But rise they have, they will.

This is a multicultural group of friends who’ve been making music together since their teenage years, a strongly bonded trio of individuals whose families stretch back to disparate climes; immigrants and natives colliding inspiration, founded in a country that only recently sought to separate itself from this Kingdom. They are rebels and rogues, brave-hearts without boundaries. I can’t wait to hear what they come up with next. In 2013 I compared their potential in the current climate to that of Massive Attack at the arrival of the 1990s, but with a Mercury win behind them, perhaps Young Fathers can explore their art to even deeper dimensions than the lowest ends of ‘Mezzanine’.

That the shortlist was universally recognised as Not Being Shit helped this year’s Mercury stand tall as its most relevant entry in years. This is an albums award, foremost – it’s not about sales or popularity or who’s got the snazziest packaging (although the sleeve for ‘Dead’, simple and striking, is pretty darn dandy). It’s about creativity and taking risks and a healthy disrespect of any status quo.

To say Young Fathers is a rap act is as misleading as offering the same pigeonhole for their poet labelmate and fellow Mercury nominee Kate Tempest. It’s amazing, really, that the melancholic Damon Albarn we hear on the brooding ‘Everyday Robots’ is the same man who once hollered himself hoarse over somebody’s bloody country retreat. Jungle might be a band of trendy revisionists, but their album doesn’t sound like any other released in the last 12 months; Anna Calvi might not possess the most mainstream-engaging vocals, but again, they’re completely unlike any others you’ll hear in modern music. Also: two jazz albums. Toss that token card to the side, as it’s within that genre’s undefined parameters that you’ll hear some of the most dazzling musicianship around.

This year’s shortlist bypassed some big-name LPs that I honestly thought would feature (here are my predictions for 2014, including Young Fathers and East India Youth), mainly because Mercury nominees often go the way of popular artists with, let’s face it, mediocre albums. I mean, Jake f*cking Bugg picked up a nomination in 2013, while recent-years nods for Mumford & Sons, Elbow, Ben Howard and Michael Kiwanuka say more about the successes those artists have seen overall, in other polls and sales overseas, rather than representing a focused appreciation of the long-play sets in question.

2014’s Mercury benefitted, too, from its panel of judges being public long before the ceremony started. It’s a great array of opinions, spanning ages and audiences. You can see for yourself who made the call on this year’s Prize here, and for my money it’s a pretty impressive collection of knowledgeable industry individuals. Alright, your man Ghostpoet can put away the spirits – as his tweet this morning confirms – but it’s probably a sure thing that he listened to the submitted albums with a sober mind.

It’s great to see plenty of women on the panel, too, from Annie Mac to The Independent’s Elisa Bray, because the music industry has too long been a male-dominated environment. That has changed, a lot, in the time I’ve been a part of it – but we can do more. I wonder if that gender balance played much of a part in Young Fathers’ win, because if there’s one thing ‘Dead’ definitely is not, is a ‘standard’ rap record full of machismo and genre-stereotypical depictions of the opposite sex.

The hype for 2014’s Mercury hasn’t been as strong as previous years, which has, I think, helped its cause greatly. There feels like a certain pressure has lifted, that so many think pieces about the award over the last couple of years – guilty, as charged – have taken the spotlight off the ceremony itself and repositioned it to the subsidiary effects it can have, on nominees and those who ‘miss out’ on a shortlist place only to be highlighted by any number of alternative ‘prizes’.

Speaking to a couple of shortlisted artists ahead of the 2014 Mercury, what struck me was this feeling that, whatever the outcome, it wouldn’t massively effect what they thought of themselves, or how they’d tackle what came next. Obviously with the money comes a greater comfort in addressing expensive sides to any recording project, but in terms of altering mindsets, or appreciating a popularity spike as a reason to repeat oneself: nope.

Said ‘G’ Hastings of winners Young Fathers to me: “These added eyes and ears, that’s a good thing, because we always wanted to make music for as many people as possible. But at the same time, we don’t mind of people love it or hate it. That doesn’t matter to us. If you make music for awards, that’d get you nowhere. It doesn’t affect us – those are not important things to us.”

Sentiments echoed by William Doyle, aka East India Youth: “I don’t want to feel too much pressure from it. That’s your own decision – how much pressure you feel from something like this is only ever down to you. Whatever happens, it’ll be interesting… (If I won), I wouldn’t build a studio, or anything like that. I’d just make sure I get to tour comfortably.”

Prize money aside, it’s unlikely that sales of ‘Dead’ will spike in such a manner that Young Fathers can kick back for five and watch their wallets swell – as documented fairly widely, it’s not a big-seller ahead of its crowning, and if past years have shown us anything (the case of James Blake’s ‘Overgrown’, for example), it’s that temporary till activity is just that: it can pass as quickly as a week. Where the gains will be made – where they have been – is in streaming. The Guardian reported that sales of ‘Dead’ went up 31% post nomination, but that equalled a mere 561 copies. But its streaming stats were much more impressive, a rise of 1,040% on Spotify and 2,267% on Napster, compared to incredibly low increases for Bombay Bicycle Club, FKA twigs and Jungle. BBC also saw one of the smallest sales boosts, percentage wise, for their ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’ LP, probably because it was already a number-one hit.

Meaning that the Mercury has highlighted new talents that exist outside of a mainstream only familiar with a handful of nominees in 2014. One of the Prize’s key objectives is to “introduce new albums from a variety of genres to a wider audience”, and nobody can say that they’ve not nailed that this year. It’s supposed to “encourage debate and discussion about music”, which it clearly has – you’re reading it. Well done then, everyone. I’d say this keeps the monkey off the Mercury’s back for a few months – or at least until the next “where’s all the metal” article froths forth.

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