At the 20th annual Mercury Prize award ceremony, held this year in a new venue with a new host, the grand prize of £20,000 was appropriately awarded to a debut album. An Awesome Wave was an unexpected critical success for the Cambridge-based quartet who until this year had spent their five-year career in relative obscurity. The band’s response to this success was suitably timid, with keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton describing the award as evidence that the album was “quite good”. Frontman Joe Newman revealed that they planned to celebrate by getting ‘really pissed,’ and planned to use the money to give them the financial stability needed to get to work on their next album; hopefully fans will not have to wait another five years until then.
The other acts nominated did seem to suggest a change of emphasis for the prize with an unusually young average age and a large number of debut albums from relatively obscure acts. Standing at the Sky’s Edge, Richard Hawley’s seventh album, and Ill Manors from the already prominent Plan B were exceptions rather than the rule in a field that included Django Django, Jessie Ware, Field Music and Michael Kiwanuka. Organisers aim to emphasise the power of the event to attract attention to minor artists, for example token jazz act Roller Trio claim to have experienced a significant increase in album sales following their nomination.
This new approach for the selection process may help to explain away some of the controversy surrounding the award this year including accusations that the choice of nominees failed to reflect the real state of the British music scene and the non-inclusion of highly acclaimed albums such as Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow. However, choosing Alt-J as the winners seems to validate the importance of the Mercury Prize to promote the significance of unified albums, rather than collections of singles, as a medium for pop music. An Awesome Wave is a cohesive conception that matches this mandate perfectly, a fact that Newman noted by insightfully describing their work as “album-ey.”