Why I’m pleased Let England Shake won the Mercury Music Prize

My wife was reading Matthew Cain’s spectacularly wrong-headed blogpost over at the Channel 4 website earlier and exclaiming things like “has he looked at the winners over the last 20 years?” and “there’s only two obscure artists this year and one of them’s the token jazz one”.

Cain seems to think that Let England Shake, Harvey’s fourth nomination for and second winner of the Mercury Prize in her twenty-year career, is an obscure album that “no-one liked or bought”. Let England Shake actually garnered pretty massive critical acclaim, and has sold 70,000 copies since February. For a “difficult” female artist in her 40s releasing a concept album about the first world war, in the midst of a collapsing record industry which has harboured inherrent sexism and ageism at the best of times, 70,000 units seems pretty good to me – especially when you consider that sales have shot-up by 1000% since the prize was awarded last night, surely propelling the record towards gold status.

Judging by Cain’s blog post and tweets, he’s actually just miffed that his beloved Adele didn’t win, and carrying some kind of schoolyard trauma regarding being teased by the cool kids for not liking whomever they thought was cool that morning. Both of which would be fair enough if he was just another amateur voice in the social media maelstrom, but when he’s employed as C4 News’ cultural correspondent and placing his opinions under their masthead, it seems a little… embarrassing. Even if you don’t particularly like PJ Harvey, it’s churlish in the extreme not to recognise the artistic and musical merit of the record. The XX wasn’t my favourite album nominated last year, but I could totally understand why the judges chose it without getting my knickers in a twist about ulterior motives.

I could go into a prolonged examination of what the Mercury Prize is for, and what it’s worth, and how irrelevant it is, and how I’m irritated that Patrick Wolf and Wild Beasts didn’t get nominated, and how not enough electronic music gets nominated, and how, if they’re not to be perceived as a joke, one of the token jazz nominations surely must win one year, but the fact remains that, over the last decade of its existence in particular, the Mercury Prize has proved to be a very valuable part of the British musical landscape – it gets people interested in, talking about, and buying music, and generally music that sits a little bit out of usual mainstream cultural saturation. That’s a good thing, unless you’re Speech Debelle.

But actually I’d rather lavish yet more praise on PJ Harvey. Let England Shake may have been the obvious choice for the Mercury judges, the bookies’ favourite, but it deserved that esteem. Alongside Wild Beasts, it’s the album I’ve listened to by far the most this year, an album that, despite the specificity of its theme and topography, works incredibly well in a number of contexts – on the living room hi-fi with soe oomph, on the iPod while ambling through town or countryside, in the car, curled up on the sofa with a pair of headphones. We listened to it as we drove through the mountains of Andalucía in June and it worked there as well as it did on misty Devon mornings in early spring.

Maybe this is because it’s a record that lures you enticingly, and comprehensively, into its own world, a world outlined with sound and coloured in with words, a world of mud and blood and meaningless death. I find Let England Shake both exceptionally aesthetically pleasing, from the organic, hazy grooves of the autoharp and drums to the intriguingly appealing dissonance of the strange samples and musical appropriations, and also incredibly emotionally moving, the starkness of the lyrics and the distanced delivery of the vocals which obliterates any traces of mawkish sentimentality. It feels to me like a masterpiece, like a work of art, like something that will only grow in stature and influence and importance as the months and years pass. Looking down the lost of past Mercury winners, and only Screamadelica, and perhaps Dummy, stand out as being of the same quality as Let England Shake, to my ears at least. My favourite Mercury winner ever.


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