If there’s one thing we can rely on when it comes to the Mercury Music Prize, it’s that it never goes to the favorite. Right?
Perhaps not always. The 20th winner of arguably the most prestigious prize in the British music industry went to PJ Harvey for Let England Shake, making Harvey the first artist to win the award twice. She triumphed 10 years ago for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Northern England act Elbow was also in the frame for a second success, had Build a Rocket Boys! received the prize. (The Seldom Seen Kid won in 2008.)
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As so often seems to be the way every year, the build up to the big night had been about the supposed favorite to walk away with the award. Quite possibly for the first time, however, both the bookmakers’ and sentimental fans’ favorite had been the same artist. In this case, Harvey, whose astonishing set of protest songs (recorded in a church) has been rightly acclaimed as the most complete work of her storied career. “I knew I put everything I had into it,” she told the BBC shortly after winning.
Yet a cursory glance on Tuesday afternoon at the 12 runners and riders would surely have made one think that Adele’s odds of 7/1 (making her only joint fifth favorite) for 21, an album that practically everybody on the planet owns by now, were extremely appealing. Why wouldn’t the judges not plump for a record that has wowed the critics as well as the buying public? Only the AP seemed to agree, labeling her “the favorite to win,” even if they didn’t go into any real detail aside from that headline and noting, as we did, that it’s sold so well. Even Harvey said she finds Adele’s voice “very moving” and would be “happy if she won.”
The fact that female artists were the talk of the event beforehand must be considered encouraging, as it’s not as if the men are exactly starved of publicity. In total, there were four female singer/songwriters in the frame, with the addition of Adele’s Brit School classmate, Katy B, and Anna Calvi. And among the solo male artists, double Brit award winner Tinie Tempah (Disc-Overy) and the eponymous debut by James Blake would have fancied their chances, especially Blake, whose star is on the rise.
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Frustratingly, we never find out who each judge voted for, which would at least make the process that bit more democratic. All we know for sure is that they don’t base their decision on the evening’s performances. And so Adele’s failure to walk away victorious has possibly more to do with the Mercury’s recent trend to not reward the best-known act, but perhaps the artist that could benefit most from the publicity bump. Harvey’s record hasn’t exactly been flying off the shelves.
Indeed, you probably have to go as far back as 2006, when Arctic Monkeys won for their debut release, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, to find a winner that didn’t shock the public or so-called experts. You can read that as a subtle way of saying they were the last deserved winner of the prize until Tuesday, but we couldn’t possibly comment.
So let’s just say that recognizing the underdog and/or being contrary can be a Mercury specialty. As early as 1994, instead of giving Britpop its due via Zeitgeist-defining records by the likes of Blur, Pulp or Paul Weller, they went with the bland pop stylings of M People. Three years later, they went too far the other way to try and make amends, by rewarding drum and bass with New Forms by Roni Size/Reprazent, instead of making the right call with a certain album called OK Computer by Radiohead.
In fact, between 1997-2000 and then seven subsequent times in the past decade, the Mercury has gone to a debut album (13 of the 19 Mercurys before Tuesday’s award went to a debut release) which, in retrospect, could have ruled out about half of the contenders this year. But in reliably unreliable fashion, the Mercurys continue to confound. As for Harvey, the world is thankfully a considerably calmer place compared to the day she won the first time around back in 2001. That was on September 11, and Harvey was in Washington D.C. on tour. The fact that she won again 10 years on with a record inspired by the horrors of war somehow seems particularly apt.