You'll have heard by now that PJ Harvey has won the 2011 Mercury Music Prize, with 'Let England Shake'. The Mercury has a long and somewhat controversial history since it was first won in 1992 by Primal Scream – from U2, Simply Red and others - for 'Screamadelica' (and yes the Scream were young and emerging back then).
For a start, it’s now the Barclaycard Mercury Prize and yet despite its corporate affiliations, it has developed a reputation for quirkiness in both its lists of nominees and its choice of winners. From 1997 when Roni Size/Raprazent’s 'New Forms' beat out 'OK Computer' to the recent triumphs of The xx and Speech Debelle, raised eyebrows have usually been smoothed by the explanation that it’s the Album and not the Artist that wins the day. If only that was true then the speeches would be a lot shorter.
As for the actual result this year, well I guess PJ Harvey is a worthy winner from the list. I am genuinely surprised it wasn't Adele as she's been such a phenomenon and I also believe that on past form of the prize, Ghostpoet particularly deserved the career lift it would have given. Guy Garvey of Elbow put it well when he said that he'd rather the prize kickstarted someone else's career, than they would win it again.
I think PJ's win is down to a couple of things. War and the ongoing ‘at war’ situation (being nearly ten years since the War on Terror began) is a very visceral theme just now - there are two new plays currently playing at the National Theatre with that theme (i.e. that we are living in a war stricken society), with a third soon to open, and that doesn’t count the phenomenal success of 'War Horse' - with a Steven Spielberg film adaptation on its way also.
So war does seem to be a preoccupation of the chattering classes, and beyond. In that context I think PJ's album hits a chord and is probably benefitting - however well it is actually done - from exactly the right timing. For the album itself, I still stand by what I wrote about it when I reviewed it here, but I am less convinced than I was of its absolute quality - the best songs are genuinely great but there's a few really weak moments.
I think the second aspect is that we are in a bit of a lull for British music - there's not so much original stuff going on, which is why I think the Cutthroat Convention piece I wrote recently caused a bit of a stir on the blog. Certainly if you look at the list of Mercury nominees they seem to be a lot stronger (by which I mean internationally recognized acts) pre, say, 2001.
There was a letter published this month in the French magazine 'Rock And Folk' on the lack of new British bands, other than the Arctic Monkeys, and implying that British music was in a recessionary period, along with the rest of UK business. Maybe that's true - certainly their perception was that the constant stream of British invaders to Paris had dried up for the moment - finally signaling the end of ‘Cool Britannia’.
So, with no disrespect to the quality of 'Let England Shake' (only ‘England’ mind) or the truly fantastic body of work PJ Harvey has produced to date, the jury’s decision this year does seem to break with the established history of the prize. Personally, I put PJ's win down to war obsessed Radio 2 listeners and the lack of credible young pretenders.
Don't get me wrong - I think 'Let England Shake' is an excellent album, though maybe not so radical as some would like to believe, and I also think in the context of the last few years, an artist like Ghostpoet would have been a worthy winner. But War and its consequences for this country are overwhelmingly topical, and there is a definite lack of strength in depth in new British music, two factors which combined to make the outcome atypical but inevitable.
STREAM: PJ Harvey - The Words That Maketh Murder by Vagrant Records
'Let England Shake' is available to purchase at Amazon.co.uk.