Why Mercury win for Speech Debelle marks return to award's roots
Unlike the other heavily-marketed nominees, the £20,000 prize money actually makes a difference
The sales of Elbow's fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid, quadrupled after their Mercury Award in 2008. It's a safe bet that the winner of this year's accolade, Speech Debelle, will match at least that part of the Manchester's band's huge success: the recently released Speech Therapy had sold only 3000 copies before the ceremony at Grosvenor House Hotel, London on Tuesday, September 8.
9000 people inspired by curiousity, vanity or genuine respect for the awards to take a risk on a relative unknown may be one of the easier Mercury outcomes to judge. But, if there's anything the ceremony has taught us, it's that lasting public opinion can differ greatly from that of 12 conceited musos sitting round a table in a posh hotel for an evening.
Thoughts from all camps clicked last year though, as Elbow took over the world one Match of the Day highlights package at a time. Compared with this year's winner though, there seems to be little to unite the two acts (well, apart from one syllable, even if it's in the wrong place). Debelle is a bright, young, distinctive mixture of diminutive, acoustic rhythms and bold, brazen rap; all assured London feist unashamedly letting her share past troubles on an initially low key debut. Elbow are the sloggers, seemingly getting the award last year for 15 years of hard service to epic indie and four albums of haunting beauty, rather than just for their best work yet.
The Mercury's respect, though, comes from a tradition of embracing diversity, awarding the most valued album on merit rather than aesthetic or popularity. But for those who decide who gets the plastic prize, and its accompanying £20,000, it's more than just being 'good'. Robert Sandall, speaking to 2009 judge, The Guardian's Jude Rogers, spoke of his experience on the judging panel in the mid 90s: (http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/video/2009/sep/08/mercuryprize)
"The list back in the 90s was rather more constructed, we were told pretty much we had to nominate some successful blockbuster albums, there had to be a contemporary classical record on their, there had to be a jazz record on there, there had to be a folk album. So we felt like we putting something together that was almost a representative portrait of British music rather than what the list looks like to me now which is more fun, which is 'Have you heard this record? This is fantastic!"
Those definitive nomination categories may have been relaxed, but that central idea of a 'representative portrait' is something recent judge, and 2009 awards show presenter, Lauren Laverne would perhaps agree with:
"They always say you can’t judge it on “What is the best album?” as that’s subjective," she told Musoguide's Catherine Wilson, "so they’ll be looking for something that sums up the year. I think they’re looking for something that represents Britain and Ireland." (http://musosguide.com/lauren-laverne-on-the-workings-of-the-mercury-prize/7421)
To the judges, including Radio 2's Janice Long and former NME editor Conor McNicholas, and perhaps to a wider population, Debelle's winning long player is this Britain. Like Klaxons before her, and their heralding of 'nu-rave' in 2007 (where it's thankfully remained), as well as Arctic Monkey's northern drama becoming the zeitgeist of 2006, Speech Debelle represents a year of music more than any other. Inspirational, genre crossing females seems to be 2009's most memorable narrative.
Disregarding such ideologies though, the main thing that brings together these last two victors though is that they are, very simply, albums. Proper old fashioned albums. In a world of iTunes and random playlists, these are cohesive, long-playing bodies of work that represent an artist and their mindset at an important time in their life. The Seldom Seen Kid is both a lament and a celebration of departed friend, Bryan Glancy, who gave his all to Manchester and music. Whereas Speech Therapy is just that - Debelle getting over rough times and harsh thoughts by using the mic as her psychoanalyst.
It's this reality and emotion that sets her out from many of her fellow nominees of 2009. She did things the hard way, with London's hostels being her own Brit School before walking into the offices of independent urban record label Ninjatune, with just a demo and her passion. Then followed four years of hard word and low budgets. And now it's paid off.
2009 is a return to what the Mercury set out to be. The £20,000 would have covered a fraction of Polydor's marketing budget for La Roux, and success and prestige has already found its way to Glasvegas and Kasabian. This is a win that will change an artist's life, and give a great record label a deserved leg up. Oh, and the album's really quite good too.