Well, you can’t accuse them of playing safe anymore. This year’s Mercury Prize panel chose James Blake’s ‘Overgrown’ as the best British album of the year. Even earlier in the night he was still rated as a 32/1 longshot, with the likes of Laura Mvula, Disclosure and Foals being spoken of as much more likely victors. The surprise here at the awards ceremony was audible, with one journalist exclaiming “I never saw that coming!” moments after Lauren Laverne announced the winner.
‘Overgrown’ was safely one of the least-commercial records on this year’s relatively populist list, even if it did peak at number 8 in the charts. It’s even less commercial than his self-titled debut, which was nominated for the Mercury back in 2011. You can’t imagine that even the Mercury Prize nod will tip Blake into genuinely mainstream success and mass popularity, but nevertheless there’s plenty who would argue that it’s a just reward for his subtle and carefully crafted music. You have to imagine that it will also restore a touch of credibility to the Mercury Prize itself, which had been widely criticised for flying too close to the sun of chart success with its shortlist.
Sure, I’d be lying if I said that the likes of ‘AM’ and ‘Holy Fire’ haven’t been more popular in the NME office this year, or that the superb and experimental Jon Hopkins record would have represented a more genuinely leftfield choice. However, as his recent collaborations with Chance The Rapper show, Blake’s an inventive artist who is still willing and able to experiment and adapt his music to new styles and influences.
Back when it was released in April this year, NME’s Al Horner said: “On his debut, Blake was caught in a no-man’s land between the club music he had outgrown and the as-tender-as-Bon Iver trappings he’d yet to fully master, unsure of what he wanted it to be. His sound is no less divided this time around, but on ‘Overgrown’ he’s done making apologies for it. It’s not an easy listen, but it may just be one of the most nuanced, soothing and adventurous of 2013.” That all still rings true.
As I type, James Blake is in the bowels of the Roundhouse describing how “surreal” it feels. “It’s not the sort of thing you expect,” he says. “In fact, you might even bet against it if you’re British.” He seems as surprised as everyone else here, but it’s undoubtedly a worthy winner.