Nice chap, James Blake, but what is the point of the Mercury Prize?

Plus, is it just me or is John Williams' 'Stoner' not the party it was cracked up to be?


So dubstep pioneer-come- soul crooner James Blake has won the Mercury Music Prize. And though not the bookies’ favourite I wouldn’t take bets on many being surprised by Blake’s victory either.

The soft-spoken 25-year-old whose second effort, Overgrown, was deemed the best British album of the year, has all the qualities we should now find predictable in a Mercury winner. A nice young man, classically trained, Blake makes a brand of electronica at once inventive and palatable. If you’re not familiar with it, expect layered synthesisers, rich vocal melodies and minimal electronic drums: a sound which some call modern and others find not vastly dissimilar to the noise Brian Eno and Roxy Music developed in around 1972. In short, the kind of music both acceptable to listen to at a summer music festival and to find residing in the CD player of your Mum’s car (I speak from experience).

Blake accepted the award with characteristic humility – gracing the podium for a mere 30 seconds to make the faintly ludic utterance “I’m going to thank my parents for showing me the importance of being self-sufficient”. The kind of declaration, one presumes, that might just have easily made by an abandoned orphan searching for words in praise of an absent parent.

Elsewhere, Oxford-based rockers Foals were thankfully on hand to offer up some much need comic relief – though even that was spiked with a fractious, familial flavour. When asked on how it would feel to beat fellow nominee David Bowie, frontman Yannis Philippakis said simply, “it’d be a little bit like punching  your Dad”.

What is the point in the Mercury Music Prize, family feuds aside? Originally labelled an alternative to the Brits, those recently awarded the £20,000 – PJ Harvey, The xx and Elbow – are all signed to major labels and don’t desperately require the cash or exposure.

It does serve one clearly definable function: to inspire ire in those who aren’t or, in some circumstances, are nominated. In a moment of brilliance, Damon Albarn-fronted Gorillaz called for their eponymous debut album to be retracted from the 2001 nominations. The reason? Winning, said the band, would be, “Y’know sorta like carrying a dead albatross round your neck for eternity”. 

So good luck, James Blake. The world is all before you and the Gorillaz wish you and your albatross all the best.

Classic isn’t what it used to be

I don’t mean to be cynical (transparent lie), but am I alone in thinking John Williams’ rediscovered classic Stoner wasn’t really, well, that classic? This “perfect novel” – overlooked on its publication in 1965 – now leads the shortlist of Waterstones Book of the Year, thanks to critical resuscitation from the likes of Ian McEwan and The New York Times Book Review.

Like many others, I imagine, I read too much into the title and came expecting a riotous, weed-smoking romp through the swinging Sixties. More fool me: beatnik splifferature Stoner emphatically isn’t. Light on sex, gags and drug-use, the novel charts the tortured progress of a trounced English professor in Missouri during the first half of the 20th century. It has the grim charm of a Thomas Hardy and all the narrative ambition of a Victorian novel to match – though regretfully it's a book happily oblivious to that slight but important movement which preceded it, Modernism. Still, in age where Morrissey can monumentalise himself beside Melville and Molière, who am I to judge a classic?

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