Who should win the Mercury Prize? (1)

James Mackay 14 September 2017

12. Blossoms – Blossoms

I really hate Blossoms – a fact I’ve tried to highlight by ranking them below Ed Sheeran on this list. Their self-titled debut is a tired, witless effort that finds the band paying gormless tribute to the influences they so garishly wear on their sleeves; even their logo is a blatant Arctic Monkeys rip-off. I hate the way the synth lines so lazily shadow the lead vocal melodies on ‘Charlemagne’ and ‘At Most a Kiss’, as if they were trying to prop up the fantastically vapid lyrics. Literally every song on the album is about heterosexual love, and each is as cloying and one-dimensional as the last. There isn’t a single good line to be found here, though there are plenty of properly awful ones:

“When you were mine, you were so kind / But you went and changed your mind” – from ‘My Favourite Room’.

Try and write something as violently bland as this. I’m not convinced it’s possible.

“I feel something’s got to give with you and him / Call me back I want you / I feel I could be your boy if you let me in” – from ‘Onto Her Bed’.

Aside from how leering and unpleasant this line obviously is, ‘I feel I could be your boy’ also manages to sound oddly formal, as if the band were applying for a job rather than writing an awful love song.

“On and on and on / A blue eyed boy not made for pain / Gone I’m gone I’m gone / My tears down the windy alley drain” – also from ‘Onto Her Bed’.

I’m suing the band for royalties because I’m fairly sure I wrote that one when I was 14.

Beyond finding different, increasingly hyperbolic ways to say that it’s dull, I have very little to say about this album, other than that it shouldn’t have been nominated in the first place. This year, Blossoms were mystifyingly high up on the bill at Reading and Leeds – admittedly their spiritual home – their set placed, appropriately, just before Liam Gallagher and Muse. Blossoms already have their fans and their mediocre career stretching out before them, they’re already guaranteed a lifetime’s worth of airplay on Radio X. They don’t need further promotion. I’m aware that NME-backed indie bands are extraordinarily low-hanging critical fruit, but in 2017 the Mercury shortlist can do much, much better than the stale, sad-lad indie on offer here.

As an act of atonement for having given Blossoms so much attention, here are some British albums from the last year which should have been nominated in its place: Ibibio Sound Machine – Uyai; Blanck Mass – World Eater; Laura Marling – Semper Femina; Wiley – Godfather; Actress – AZD; Clark – Death Peak.

11. Ed Sheeran – Divide

What can you say about this Ed Sheeran album that hasn’t already been said? The last word has been had, and the hot takes have gone cold. It feels clichéd to be overly derisory about an album that’s been so widely derided; it feels uninspiring to come to the conclusion that yes, the album you’ve probably heard is bad is, in fact, bad.

In a vague attempt to keep my journalistic integrity intact, I have actually listened to all of it, and while it is largely rubbish, it’s not entirely without merit. Blossoms is bad in a way which is entirely predictable whereas, in fairness to Ed, Divide finds plenty of different, often morbidly intriguing ways to be crap, which almost commands respect. What’s more, closer ‘Supermarket Flowers’ is a genuinely affecting song, easily the album’s best. I don’t mind ‘Dive’, and ‘Shape of You’ is listenable, if only because it plagiarises an infinitely better TLC song.

The rest is pretty dire though, with ‘What Do I Know?’ showcasing Sheeran at his platitudinous worst:

“The revolution’s coming, it’s a minute away / I saw people marching in the streets today / You know we are made up of love and hate / But both of them are balanced on a razor blade”.

Ed comes so tantalisingly close to making a political statement here, which makes it all the more egregious when he drudgingly reverts to type, crooning that “love can change the world in a moment”. The past year has been nothing if not fiercely political – so to invoke the kind of revolutionary imagery that’s been poignantly deployed by protest singers throughout history, only to drain from that imagery any discernable partisanship, is a cynical and reactionary move. Ed Sheeran is a deeply conservative artist, a calculating salesman more interested in appealing to as many customers as possible than in using his immense platform for good. Smugly thinking that you’re necessarily above pop music is a terrible way to think, but there are legitimate reasons to dislike this album. An Ed Sheeran win would be proof of Britain’s increasingly overt desire for fascist rule. Also, fuck ‘Galway Girl’, obviously.

I’m aware that one of the prize’s goals is to provide a snapshot of the year in music, and that Sheeran’s nomination undoubtedly helps accomplish this. I’m a snob though, and I don’t care. Here are some better albums which should have been nominated in its place: Richard Dawson – Peasant; Jane Weaver – Modern Kosmology; Forest Swords – Compassion; Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly lee Owens; Sleaford Mods – English Tapas; Swet Shop Boys – Cashmere.

10. Glass Animals – How to Be a Human Being 

Glass Animals would like very much to be interesting, but their affected quirk is gimmicky and unconvincing – they are a boring band, and How to Be a Human Being is a boring album. ‘Life Itself’, one of its better songs, would make good background music for a Goal of the Month roundup on Match of the Day. Cane Shuga grabs your attention but forgets to go anywhere. Agnes is faux-inspirational pap, its instrumental a warped blend of Coldplay and Imagine Dragons, its vocals suitably generic. The lyrics tend to aim for a zany, offbeat sense of fun that I find forced; their songs aren’t without personality, it’s just a personality I don’t like.

9. The Big Moon – Love in the Fourth Dimension 

It’s fine. It’ll do. It’s alright. It’s a guitar-rock album that’s much, much better than Blossoms. I like it more than I thought I did. It’s well-written. It does, however, do absolutely nothing new. That’s fine obviously – an embarrassing amount of my favourite music being made today shamelessly rehashes ideas that have been done to death since the 90s – but Love in the Fourth Dimension doesn’t have enough excellent material to excuse its indistinctiveness.

8. alt-J – Relaxer 

The third album from perhaps the most Mercury Prize band ever is bewilderingly inconsistent. Relaxer opens with two of the band’s best ever songs, only to follow them up with a pointless cover of ‘House of the Rising Sun’, on which the band sound like an even less interesting version of Elbow. ‘Deadcrush’ is a typically sleek alt-J song, but ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ is laughably bloodless, a cynical rehash of the sound they barely pulled off with ‘Left Hand Free’.

Some of the album is really good and some of it really isn’t. Some of it is just alright. It shouldn’t win, and it probably won’t. Next.