The (Barclaycard) Mercury Prize 2013 – Foals, Villagers and Arctic Monkeys.

The Mercury Prize is just around the corner, stick your neck out and you might even catch a glimpse of it in the distance. This of course means a few things: journalists will question the relevance of the prize; artists will question the relevance of the prize and the lay-folk will question the relevance of the prize, oh there may be some music too. Anyway, we’ve decided to commemorate such a magical time of the year by taking a look at the nominees and then harping on with our own opinion on them. Will it be relevant? I wouldn’t dare say.

One of the major criticisms of the Mercury Prize that we will be taking into account whilst considering the album is that the Mercury Awards nowadays represent no more than a list of a few albums that most people quite like, voted for by a panel of faceless someones. A contrary proposition that has been suggested is that the prize would be better off being used as a means of promoting new artists, rather than telling established artists with multi-million selling albums that we quite like them. That is a shortened version of the debate – a very shortened version (I’m not even going to go near the entry fee fiasco) – but it will do for now.

Foals – Holy Fire

Foals burst back onto the British scene with the release of brilliant singles Inhaler and My Number at the end of last year. The album soon followed in the early months of 2013, appearing to represent a bit of a mix of album one an two, it took trace elements of the high-pitched guitar chiming “Math-Rock” (yeah, that’s a genre) of Antidotes and combined it with the somewhat calmer, more emotive sound of Total Life Forever to create a general feel of an evolution of the band. There is enough within the album to excite a stadium crowd, inspire a club to dance and also leave a gobsmacked impression of wonder upon the face of the lonesome listener laying limply on their bed. It has also been noted, particularly within Inhaler, that Foals appear to have upped their showmanship in their third-coming, the song opens drawing the walls of claustrophobia inwards until they can recede no more cueing Yannis Phillippakis’ Wall-crumbling cry of: “I can’t get enough… space.” Its the kind of musical imagery that we’ve seen in the past from legends of the game such as Lou Reed who so perfectly created the masterpiece that is Heroin (the song, not the drug – stay in school kids).

What Holy Fire seems to have done more than anything else is really confirm that Foals deserve to headline a big stages the world over and better still it has done it without sacrificing the credibility they gained from Total Life Forever. However, prior issues of slightly hammy lyrics have not yet been overcome entirely e.g.. references to cowboys who for some reason happen to be wearing crowns come across a little weakly. Importantly however, these pitfalls are far surpassed by the positives of the album.

The album is brilliant and without doubt worthy of being considered among the best of the year, however there is an issue as far as the (Barclaycard) Mercury Prize goes – its a third album. So I guess the question is not if Holy Fire is a good album, rather whether it is really is relevant to clap Foals on a job well done or whether a less famed band could do with the publicity instead. That said, Foals are far from the worst example of this in the nominee list for this year.

In short, does Holy Fire deserve to top a list of albums released since the last Mercury Prize? Yes, it has a very good case. Should it win this years prize? If you believe that the prizes should focus on breakthrough acts and up and comers then no it should not. Will it win? Maybe, although my money is elsewhere.

Villagers – {Awayland}

Well this album is at a severe disadvantage from the start for me, Villagers have done their best in {Awayland} to wind up journalists, bloggers and illegal downloaders alike with the inclusion of the curly brackets. Nonetheless I plan to commit fully to the inclusion of said brackets every time I write {Awayland}, which I imagine will be a lot, after all the album is called {Awayland}. Point made? Ok, let’s progress. {Awayland} is Villagers second nomination for the Mercury Prize after their debut Becoming a Jackal was nominated in the 2010 edition of the awards. In their debut Villagers established a combination of dark lyrics and recurring eerie passages of sound separated only by slightly less eerie sections. After two years of touring with this style, front man Conor O’Brien claimed to have grown tired of its overly acoustic and sorrowful romanticism and thus started experimenting more so with synthesizers in an attempt to widen the scope of Villagers’ sound. This has led to the increase in electronic sounds within the Villagers’ style in a move that, in the opinion of O’Brien, has only partially achieved the initial experimental goals as the complex soundscapes have eroded down to a safer tracklist.

The only-partial success of experimental spirit is at time noticeable, but generally speaking the album feels like a positive step forward and one that has allowed them to maintain plenty of touch with the style that initially popularised them with their break through Becoming a Jackal. However in spite of the changes, the persistent focal point for compliment of Villagers ought to remain the lyrics, though listening to them too frequently, deeply and literally might cause a sudden onset of sadness. The imagery of O’Brien’s words is almost worthy of a nomination for a literary award as well as a musical one. Anyone who throws a electronic donkey into one of their songs has to be a genius right? Or a bit odd maybe, or just bored in a high school music lesson.

I’ll cut down the rhetorical questions for this one: Villagers’ second venture into widespread success is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the best albums of the year and they are arguably less established than a few bands upon the Mercury list, though they are still quite strongly steadied in the musical world. In my opinion, {Awayland} should not win the prize because it is neither the best album on the list nor the most visionary, that doesn’t not mean, however, that it is not a good, progressive album – far from it.

Arctic Monkeys – AM

Given my opinion that the third release by Foals is too established of a nominee to be rightfully considered for the prize this year, it might be considered a foregone conclusion that I don’t believe that AM should take the title as The (Barclaycard) Mercury album of the year. Well it’s not. Well actually, yes, it is, but there’s also other reasons that I don’t believe that AM should win that take precedence over that one: it’s a long way off being the best album on the list, it’s a way off being the best work of the Arctic Monkeys and well, if you’re looking for that genre, it seems like picking up a Black Keys album would be a wiser move. I am of course not suggesting that just because the Black Keys do it so well that the lads from Sheffield should have left it alone, that would be a ridiculous things to suggest. Rather that if they are going to do that sort of bassy, dirty rock that sounds so greasy that Alex Turner could use it to keep his quiff up, it might require a little more fine tuning. Compared to the likes of the Keys, the fellas dabbling into the genre sounds a little bland and perhaps with the exception of the singles, just a little uninspired.

It is key to note at this point that I am not, and never will be, one of those “hardcore” Arctics fans who claim they should have released Whatever People Say I am, That’s What I’m Notflirted with Favourite Worst Nightmare and then packed in and ridden off as the sun went down against the foreground of explosions and swooning women. I loved both Humbug and Suck it and See, but I just can’t quite get on board with AM (I’m sure Alex will be just mortified when he hears). The next gripe I have is perhaps not entirely AM-oriented, but it is still a gripe I’ve struggled to slip past: the new image. No longer do they appear to represent a youthful mocking of phonies who all claim their own fake tale of success whilst singing about the revolutionary topic of getting drunk and picking up women. Instead Turner himself, who’s accent is now all but gone, seems to have succumbed to his own parody of what a rockstar should be: living in LA, talking and walking like Elvis and unabashedly singing about getting drunk and picking up women. The effect of this on the album is, for me, massive – it changes the entire perspective in which the band is viewed and leaves the music sounding decidedly less appealing.

The basis of this review might not have been entirely musically based so far, in fact around half it is essentially me complaining of Turner’s Elvis impression – which could as of yet just turn out to be such a deep-running satirical take on society that it has as of yet not become distinguishable from actually becoming a part of the society that he would be mocking. But it feels important as each of these factors adds to the production of the album and alters its existence, an existence that to me is one that could be greatly improved upon.

So in simple terms, is AM one of the best albums of the year? Not for me. Should it win the (Barclaycard) Mercury Prize? No, it shouldn’t. Will it win? It’s not implausible, but really it seems quite unlikely – I’m going to stick out my neck and hit you with a definitive no.

Jack Meredith @JackMeredith7

What’s your opinion on these albums and the Mercury Prize as a whole? We want to hear it – comment below or alternatively fire us a message via Facebook or Twitter (@OTBeat). Meanwhile, if you’re are curious about the Mercury Prize, you can find them on the web or just ask a stranger in the street à la Woody Allen in Annie Hall.

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