Ben Hogwood writes: There is no getting away from it – this year’s Mercury Prize nominations have a feel of the damp squib about them. In a time when Britain, and England in particular, has experienced a completely invigorating cultural explosion with the Olympics and Paralympics, it feels like something of a missed opportunity for the breadth of our musical output in the last 12 months to be only partially recognised.
For sure, there are a lot of talented singer/songwriters on our shores these days, but to have half of the nominations made up of artists that could be bracketed in to this category is a big push, and even then those of the calibre of Kate Bush are still left on the sidelines.
Michael Kiwanuka has a winsome voice on Home Again, as does Lianne La Havas on Is Your Love Big Enough, but both fit snugly in to the realms of daytime radio, as does Ben Howard in Every Kingdom. Even Jessie Ware, here performing a wonderfully smoky Wildest Moments with just a guitar for company, is referred to by many as a ‘new Sade’. Not true – this is a voice that can go with clipped electro beats just as well as it marries an acoustic. Richard Hawley, on the other hand, is now indie royalty, and a nomination for Standing At The Sky’s Edge recognises a career that has been consistently high quality, his first nomination since 2006 and Coles Corner.
More original inspiration is to be found in the jazz entry – Roller Trio’s self-titled album – and in the folk corner, where Sam Lee’s Ground Of Its Own sits crookedly on a bar stool. Meanwhile there are three bands nominated. One is a durable set of North Eastern brothers – Sunderland’s redoubtable Field Music particularly well received with recognition for the ambitious Plumb. Also showing staying power are The Maccabees, with their crowning opus Given To The Wild a palpable and urgent step up from previous long players, while Leeds quartet Alt-J (∆), just starting out, have their own curious sound world for An Awesome Wave recognised by the judges and bookmakers, many of whom make them joint favourites. Meanwhile, Django Django's eponymous debut, released way back in January, could be the dark horse of 2012.
In the sad absence of Rustie, this leaves Plan B all on his own, occupying a lone furrow with the return to angrier self that is Ill Manors. Here he leaves behind the soulful yearnings of She Said, returning to the sharp observations of his debut in an album that readily journeys to the edge, asking the questions that a number in the nominations list would not dare to broach.
Should there be a gong for challenging the audience, or one for making them feel safer? We may well find out the answer to this poser come 1 November, when a winner is plucked from these ten. At the very least what the Mercury Music Prize never fails to do is start a debate about the last year’s albums, followed by a second chapter on state of the nation’s music, and for this reason it remains a valuable commodity. Yet it is to be hoped that the Mercurys, just like Plan B, will be ready and willing to take on some more obviously difficult issues.