The Mercury Prize is a strange thing. Set up as (yet) an(other) antidote to The Brits, it’s supposed to represent something like the Booker Prize, but for albums; officially, sales and popularity don’t matter, because it’s all about ‘the work’, but, actually, sales are pretty much all it comes down to. Some years, when the prize has been derided for going too mainstream, they’ll give it to someone so obscure they’ve barely even heard of themselves (c.f. Anthony and the Johnsons); other years, when the prize has been accused of disappearing too far up its own obscurantism, they’ll give it to some mega-selling mediocrity (c.f. M People); most of the time, though, the prize goes to whoever are the current holders of the ‘vaguely indieish act who are big enough for most people to have heard of them, but small enough to still pass for credible’ crown. Seriously, run your eye down the list of winners sometime and see how many fit that description: Primal Scream; Suede; Portishead; Pulp; Gomez; Badly Drawn Boy; Franz Ferdinand; Arctic Monkeys; Klaxons; Elbow. (Coincidentally, you’ll notice from this partial list that winning the Mercury is no guarantee of long-term critical regard, since some of them – Gomez? Klaxons? – would cause sharply raised eyebrows if they were included in a list of the best albums of the last 20 years.) Anyway, it comes as no great surprise that this year’s winners should be the xx, since they fit that pattern perfectly.
That’s not to say, of course, that I don’t find it hugely gratifying that Paul Weller didn’t win. Partly because the man has an ego large enough to engulf whole planets, and it’s pleasing, therefore, to see him meet his comeuppance, but also because he’s one of those artists where I find myself at a loss to even understand why they’re popular. To be fair, he’s in what other people would call quite good company, given that I find myself similarly unable to understand the popularity of people like Neil Diamond, ELO and Genesis (yes, even the early stuff when Peter Gabriel was still in the band). Let me be clear, I’m not just saying I don’t like these people (though I don’t), but I can’t even understand what other people like about them. The world is littered with artists I don’t enjoy (The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Black Sabbath, The Clash, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Erasure, etc, etc, etc) but can still see why other people like them; Paul Weller is a member of a much more select group. I mean, he sounds exactly (and I mean exactly) like the kind of people you hear churning out god-awful music when you walk past that pub you never go into because it puts on such god-awful live music. And I don’t mean he sounds like them because he’s so hugely influential, I mean he always did sound like that – offensively average – but for some inexplicable reason he was plucked from the arms of a fully-deserved obscurity and held up as some kind of emblem of genius.
Anyway, as you may have gathered, I’m not a Paul Weller fan. This is only my opinion, yours may vary, etc, etc.
I’m also not a big fan of the xx, though, to be fair, I haven’t listened to them in any great detail. To me, they seem to be too much in love with the idea of being weird and atmospheric, and too little in love with the idea of making sure all of that (in its place, great) stuff is based on the solid footing of some decent songwriting. I certainly don’t hate them, and I will keep an ear out for future developments, since I think they have the potential to possibly turn into something interesting one day (though having been praised to the skies for their first album, it’s going to be much harder for them to create the psychological space to grow and develop in a ‘natural’ way). At the back of my mind, though, I can’t shake the feeling that they’re one of those bands that create music that’s not really designed to be listened to so much as heard.
On the TV coverage, Nihal Arthanayake wondered aloud if the band would see much of a boost in sales since ‘surely every dinner party table and coffee table in the land already has a copy on it’, and I think he’s on to something. Both in terms of the kind of people who think the Mercury Prize matters (late 20s/ early 30s people who aren’t quite ready to let go of their image of themselves as cool and musically aware, but have also fallen victim to the idea that, because of their age, they ought to be listening to ‘sophisticated’ music rather than whatever it is they actually enjoy), but also in terms of where the music sounds like it would be most at home. In that, the xx are the obvious descendants of Portishead, who won back in 1995. I have a copy of that album, Dummy (though only on tape; the fact I’ve never bothered to MP3 it speaks volumes about how often I listen to it), and while I do like it, there’s no getting away from the fact that it sounds like it was created to be a soundtrack to something else, not a thing to be enjoyed in its own right.
If I had been faced with this year’s shortlist, I think I’d have probably voted for Biffy Clyro to win.* Not because I rate them particularly highly – they’re really too ‘heavy’ for my taste – but because at least they’re a proper band who see putting on a good performance as part of what a band ought to do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not averse to shy, inarticulate people who look terminally uncomfortable in their own skin being in bands – very much the contrary, in fact; subtract shy, awkward people from music and you’d get rid of most of the bands and artists I really like – but it can be taken too far. In particular, the whole thing only really works if people who are shy and inarticulate off-stage become something else on-stage, like Michael Stipe and Thom Yorke, for example. Without that extra jolt of intensity – that sense that they have a burning need to perform, because it’s the only way they can express themselves – shy inarticulacy can end up being so self-indulgent that it comes off as arrogant disregard for the people they’re hoping to play to.
That’s particularly the case, I think, when it’s a pose, and people are pretending a shyness they don’t really feel because they’ve seen that work for other bands. A couple of the bands on the shortlist seemed to me like they were definitely playing up to the image (Foals, Wild Animals), and I even thought the xx seemed a little guilty of it, if only because their ‘embarrassment’ at winning was so pitch-perfect. Take someone who’s actually shy and put them in a live interview on BBC2, and it’s odds-on that, under the pressure, their shyness will come across as belligerence or arrogance or dismissiveness, not a perfectly deployed bashfulness. But perhaps I’m being unfair; they’re by no means inexperienced when it comes to talking to the media, so maybe it’s no surprise they’ve learned how to present themselves to good advantage.
One thing before I go. I feel mean for even bringing this up, because the poor guy is very young, and just at the start of his career, and he seems very sweet, and, according to Miranda Sawyer, the performance was literally tear-jerking if you were in the room, but, man, that song Villagers played live stank. It doesn’t help that the ‘painfully sincere person with acoustic guitar’ thing has been done to death over the last decade and more (seriously, if I never hear another portentously pretentious singer-songwriter so long as I live I’ll be very happy), but the main problem was that the lyrics are so bad they’re actually funny. I mean,
Every implement was leading to you
What does that even mean? What kind of implements are we talking about? Scalpels? Lawnmowers? Garlic presses? Is he saying that, whoever this ‘you’ is, they’re so large and slow-moving they show up on sat nav? Or are they magnetic, and so make compass needles drift? And then, later, there’s this,
Feed me till I’m fed, read me till I’m read
Ok, feed me till I’m fed, pretty banal, but at least it makes sense, but read [pronounced reed] me till I’m read [red]? What, does he think he’s a book?
I’d be amongst the first to argue that song lyrics aren’t poetry, and that analysing them out of their musical context can be very unfair; lyrics are designed to inform, and be informed by, the emotional resonance of the music they accompany: they’re not supposed to stand on their own. Criticising a song lyric for lacking the depth of poetry is like criticising an elephant for its inability to fly; they’re different things, and they have different strengths, and need to be judged by different criteria. Song lyrics can be very effective even when they’re essentially meaningless, more or less random words chosen for their sound rather than their meaning. But that’s precisely where these lyrics fall down; they’re trying really hard to be profoundly meaningful, but end up falling way, way short. The writer’s trying to evoke some otherworldly sense of bizarre rituals and supernatural cruelty, but the work-a-day language he keeps falling back on is entirely unsuited to the uses he tries to put it to (as in the unfortunate choice of the word ‘implement’, for example). The lyrics aim to be profound, but miss by a mile, and it’s the disjuncture between the poetic ambition and the prosaic reality that makes them funny.
Or, at any rate, that’s what I thought. This is only my opinion, yours may vary, etc, etc.
* – Maybe, thinking about it some more, I might have voted for I Am Kloot, assuming I was able to overcome the massive obstacle of their name, and that being miserable Mancunians isn’t exactly original…