‘I feel jubilant and confused,’ said London producer James Blake last night after winning a big cheque and an ugly trophy at the Mercury Music Prize ceremony at the Roundhouse. Blake’s album ‘Overgrown’ defeated records by David Bowie, Arctic Monkeys and (the bookies’ favourite) Laura Mvula, so anyone who put money on Blake at 25/1 will be feeling pretty jubilant today, too.
Us? We’re just a bit confused. Overgrown ‘doesn’t stand much chance of taking the prize,’ we confidently declared last month when the shortlist was declared, ‘just because the competition is so damn good.’ Apparently it wasn’t good enough, despite the presence on the shortlist of Savages’ ‘Silence Yourself’ (five stars), Bowie’s ‘The Next Day’ (five stars), the Arctics’ ‘AM’ (‘a dynamite LP’) and Jon Hopkins’s ‘Immunity’ (‘an amazing achievement’).
It’s not that Blake’s album is bad at all. It’s just that (sorry, Jim) there was so much here that was worthier of the £20,000 prize and the sales boost that generally comes with the Mercury. Disclosure’s garage-pop chart-topper ‘Settle’ would have been a suitably zeitgeist-y choice, while a panel looking for genuine, leftfield innovation should have plumped for Hopkins. Both Arctic Monkeys and Foals (whose ‘Holy Fire’ was on the shortlist) have made greater leaps forward from album to album than Blake.
But ‘Overgrown’ edged it. What does it all mean? For one thing, after last year’s prize was won by Alt-J, it suggests that over a decade after Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ a trembly voice and some vaguely interesting background noises are still lazy shorthand for credibility on the British music scene. (At least Blake – unlike Alt-J – doesn’t have any close relatives in major music industry boardrooms.) There’s also a nagging suspicion that Blake wasn’t only being rewarded for ‘Overgrown’: he made the shortlist in 2011 with his startlingly original, self-titled debut album, but lost to PJ Harvey, so it’s possible that this year’s prize is something of a retrospective acknowledgement.
Either way, Blake’s the Mercury man this year, and his profile should get correspondingly huge in the coming months. So it goes. Still, it could have been much worse. When award host Lauren Laverne introduced Blake’s live performance at last night’s ceremony, she introduced him as James Blunt. Just imagine… James Manning
Listen to James Blake’s ‘Overgrown’ below…