For the third year running, the bookies’ favourite has won the Mercury Prize. Alt-J’s debut album An Awesome Wave was on short odds even before the 12-strong shortlist was announced in September. Perhaps we should have let Paddy Power give the £20,000 cheque out back then and saved ourselves a lot of fancy puddings.
This might be a sign that the Prize, a sometimes frustratingly obtuse entity that prides itself on considering artistic merit over sales figures, has been playing it safe ever since low-selling unknown Speech Debelle was widely perceived to be the wrong winner in 2009. It’s also an indication that the bookmakers have simply acquired a better understanding of what kind of artist a Mercury victor is, for this studious quartet ticked all the right boxes. As one of the 10 judges this year, I can confirm that the decision was reached without serious injury.
An Awesome Wave is arty yet accessible, musically adventurous without forgetting the tunes, a guitar album that vaults past the generic indie rock of recent years. “We’ve got to a point where people are a bit sick of the standard indie structures,” bassist Gwil Sainsbury told me in August. His band is your clever mate, impressive but never intimidating.
Singer Joe Newman’s creepy croak could be the sticking point that prevents total mainstream acceptance, but essentially Alt-J are exactly how the Mercury likes its artists – already basking in critical acclaim and selling respectably, but needing the extra push of this credible endorsement to reach the next level of popularity.
Their live performance on the night was subdued next to the fire of Plan B and Richard Hawley, but the Prize is solely for the music on the album. Though the winners may have been predictable, at least their music is far from it.