The 2019 Mercury Prize shortlist is - gulp - actually very good. All it needs now, argues columnist Mark Beaumont, is a real underground invasion
Like Jeremy Hunt hearing a fox being ripped apart by dogs and instantly getting an erection as tiny yet firm as a thimble made from the core of a neutron star, we in the music media open the email containing each year’s Mercury Prize shortlist with an intense, semi-erotic bloodlust. Which vast raft of experimental leftfield geniuses have they ignored this year, so firmly are the judges’ tongues lodged into Thom Yorke’s digestive tract? Which token jazz act will the dollar-eyed long odds gamblers lose their tenner on, again? Which big-name mainstream act must have paid a dozen or so entry fees for as many shots as possible at getting their shonky new album a glimmer of credibility?
For us frothing, sex-starved music columnist Gollums crippled by the sort of deep-seated self-loathing we need to regularly deflect onto well-meaning award ceremonies, the Mercury shortlist is an annual midsummer gift. One massive fish in a barrel pre-loaded with dynamite and wired to a detonator that ‘beeps’ bits of Florence caterwauling like she’s caught in a bear trap. When the list arrived I instantly cancelled my now-unnecessary weekly session of Mirror Punching Therapy, set my autocorrect to ‘ass-kick’ and prepared to join the column-writing equivalent of The Purge.
Then I downloaded the list and, to my utmost horror, found myself pleasantly surprised. There was no George Ezra, no BRITS cod soul, no plastic chart indie clogging up slots that greater, less recognised talents deserved. The rap, grime and future R&B (Nao, slowthai, Little Simz, Dave) represented the most incisive rising British talent, the guitar rock (Idles, Fontaines D.C., Black Midi) was suitably disjointed, angular and innovative, the poised and/or melodramatic art-pop (Anna Calvi, Cate le Bon) bore not the faintest trace of Paloma or Florence, the bigger names (The 1975, Foals) had come out with genre-challenging event records. Even the jazz one had the word Ensemble in their name, so you instantly knew which one not to bother with. The only major omissions to my mind were those brilliant records that existed some way from the cutting edge – Spiritualized’s ‘And Nothing Hurt’, Suede’s ‘The Blue Hour’, ‘Ash’s ‘Islands’. Otherwise it looked like the year the Mercurys finally ditched its air of box-ticking, zeitgeist-chasing BBC2-ishness and pretty much got it right. The year I might finally forgive them for overlooking The Delgados in 2000.
Our years of disappointment with the Mercurys always sprang from the fact that it was supposed to represent a cultured, cultivated alternative to the BRITS, a showcase of the real unheralded talent in British music, the music Booker Prize. But mostly it was just a Radio 2 BRITS. Shortlists were consistently clogged with dinner party fodder like KT Tunstall and Jessie Ware, electronica was always unerringly polite, it was woefully late to the second grime party and the whole thing generally sounded like the soundtrack for a particularly woke Guardian Blind Date. In 2019, by recognising the febrile rock resurgence and pinpointing the most politically aware, socially progressive and stylistically vital records of the year, for the first time in an age it looks like it actually knows what’s happening, while it’s happening.
There’s so much austerity, gender politics, gentrification, Brexit, bigot-battering, global warming, social injustice and general up-to-the-minute relevance in this list that you half expect to come across a tune about Jacob Rees-Mogg turning out to be a double-space wanker. The only thing the Mercury Prize 2019 needs to work on is its exclusivity. Musical acclaim shouldn’t be a members’ club, so I stand with Sleaford Mods when they pointed to the £228 entry fee as the reason they didn’t submit their latest album. It’s difficult to take the award seriously as a comprehensive scour of British music’s teeming depths if we don’t know whether those other glaring omissions Dream Wife, Yungblud or Fat White Family were even up for consideration. As impressive as this year’s list looks, there’s still a mild sense of Anne Widdecombe ranking the country’s best S&M dungeons.
So how about dropping the fee for acts on independent labels and really becoming the gold standard of British music? It’d remove another barrier for working class self-starters and it certainly can’t hurt British culture to have a huge influx of our weirdest, wonkiest and most laptop-corroded music into what’s generally a pretty Cullum friendly ceremony. Don’t feel sorry for the judges who’d have to plough through this aural equivalent of a month-long binge of ISIS execution videos, they’ll be revived with the finest wines known to humanity come the big day and, since they include the heads of Radio X, 6 Music and Radio 2, maybe the airwaves might suddenly fill with brilliant, edgy music that’s less heavily plugged, major financed, formulaic and Bastille-ised. Plus, I’m sure Hyundai will cover the shortfall…