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13th September 2016 The MALESTROM

The Mercury Music Prize: Are all bets off?

The Mercury Music Prize is best known for throwing up surprise winners, but will this year produce a different story? The MALESTROM’s resident music writer Jessica Hart tells us why the heavy favourite might just take this years title. 

With the Mercury Music Prize less than a week away, it seems the announcement of this year’s winner is one of expectation over speculation. There have been few years since the prize’s inception in 1992 that the winner has seemed so clear-cut. With a reputation for surprise victors, the prize is well known for rebuffing leading nominees in favour of the rank outsiders, an example of this none more evident than in one of this year’s nominees, Radiohead, who this year receive their fifth nomination. Arguably one of the UK’s most successful and innovative musical talents, it seems somewhat an injustice that despite holding the title of most nominated artist to contend, they have yet to claim the prize.

It appears that 2016 is set to buck the trend, it looking increasingly unlikely that any outsider will steal the crown from David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’. His final and perhaps greatest work, the album approaches subject matter rarely touched upon by the current musical mainstream. Overwhelmingly, and unsurprisingly, themes of death, ageing and illness, reflections upon life and his spiritual existence, it is not so much an album of light and dark, but dark and darkness. Bowie’s insight into such subject matter is incredibly considered, at times disturbing and resoundingly poignant. It’s an album which reveals itself inch by inch with each listen, with an almost unsettling sense that there is much more hidden than is apparent, that perhaps its secrets will be divulged as we continue to speculate and reinterpret its layers of meaning for many years to come.

As a musician who never allowed himself to get too comfortable artistically, it would be difficult to find a style of music that Bowie hadn’t incorporated into his work at some point in his fifty-four-year career. On ‘Blackstar’ Bowie utilized the talents of a local New York jazz ensemble to provide the backing music for all recorded sessions. With cited influences as eclectic as esteemed hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar, experimental hip-hop band Death Grips and Scottish electronic duo Boards of Canada, the music itself spans several genres, from art rock to experimental jazz, industrial rock to hip-hop.

With the public oblivious to Bowie’s rapidly declining health, his death, only two days after the release of his new album, came as a shock worldwide. The discovery that Bowie had known throughout the recording of ‘Blackstar’ that he was terminally ill with liver cancer immediately revealed the album as an entirely intentional final piece; a passing away translated into musical form. It is a rare thing to witness an artist who approaches their work with such precision and clarity of vision, where every move made has reason behind it and nothing left to compromise.

I feel the point must be made that this album deserves to win the Mercury, not as a tribute to the death of David Bowie, but simply because if the question “Is this a masterpiece?” were considered for the other eleven nominated albums, in each case the answer would arguably be no. In regard to ‘Blackstar’ many critics and fans alike would consider the word masterpiece to be quite fitting. Even if this year hadn’t seen the death of the albums formidable creator, it would still deserve to win, though undeniably in light of Bowie’s illness and death, the musical content of ‘Blackstar’ seems ever more potent.

All this said, when it comes to the Mercury Music Prize, nothing is ever in the bag, no matter how good the odds. The awards ceremony will take place in a matter of days, proceedings commencing with six of the twelve nominees being announced as finalists, one of which will then go on to claim the prize. If it were based upon odds alone it would seem that Bowie will be joined by Radiohead with their quite magnificent album ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’, Anohni (formerly of Anthony and the Johnsons) with her highly acclaimed album ‘Hopelessness’, London-based soul singer Michael Kiwanuka with his second album and second nomination ‘Love and Hate’, and two leading British grime and hip-hop artists Skepta and Kano with albums ‘Konnichiwa’ and ‘Made in the Manor’ respectively. Though, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, odds often don’t mean much when it comes to the Mercury, especially when there are other strong contenders such as London-based noise rock band Savages, who receive their second nom for the prize with critically acclaimed album ‘Adore Life’, and Birmingham-based soul/r’n’b artist Laura Mvula who also receives a second selection with esteemed album ‘The Dreaming Room’. Also in the running is third time Mercury nominee, English singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Bat For Lashes aka Natasha Khan, with her concept album ‘The Bride’, portraying the story of a woman tormented by the tragic death of her fiancé on the day of her wedding. In his first time up for the award Jamie Woon has an outside chance with his second album ‘Making Time’, and London-based psychedelic-jazz trio The Comet Is Coming make their Mercury debut with album debut ‘Channel the Spirits’. Finally, we have highly popular indie-pop band The 1975 who receive their first nomination with their well received (and lengthy titled) second album ‘I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful, Yet So Unaware of It’.

It is worth noting something about this last artist, who have found huge mainstream success with a sound on this second album that is unmistakably 80’s, with a hefty nod to artists such as The Cure and yes that man again, David Bowie. One track in particular ‘Love Me’ is so reminiscent of Bowie’s hit ‘Fame’ you almost wonder how they got away with it. Just one of countless examples of how the man’s music has come to influence a wealth of today’s artists, and there can be no doubt that this influence will continue to inspire musicians for generations to come.

If ‘Blackstar’ somehow manages to miss out on this year’s prize, then I’ll be eating my words, and considering this is the Mercury, I could well end up doing just that, after all this is the award that in 1994 saw M People beat Blur’s ‘Parklife’, Pulp’s ‘His ‘n’ Hers’ and The Prodigy’s ‘Music for the Jilted Generation’. When it comes to the Mercury Prize it’s often best to expect the unexpected.

Who do you think deserves the prize? Have your say below. 

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