After giving the prize to the bookies’ favourite three years running, then facing criticism this year for a safe shortlist that featured five number one albums, the Mercury judges proved they are still capable of springing a surprise when it comes to the big moment. James Blake had been nominated before for his debut album and come away trophy-less, so it was reasonable to assume that he was making up the numbers with the follow-up, Overgrown, this time.
Arctic Monkeys and David Bowie were the big beasts to beat, while Laura Mvula looked like a shoo-in with all the right boxes ticked: a classically educated muso with an adventurous new take on classic soul and jazz, plus a room-silencing solo turn on the piano on the night. But a quieter man snuck through with an album that may not be jammed with hits, and is low-key to the extent that many observers will struggle to understand the fuss, but works beautifully as a whole experience.
Blake was educated at Goldsmiths, the art school that honed most of Blur as well as his classmate and past Mercury nominee, Katy B. He has learned to take conventional building blocks – mostly piano and a rich, expressive voice, and dip them gently in a bath of electronics to make a sound that is completely of the moment.
Like The xx before him, the beauty is in the space between the notes, the textures in the corners that are only found if you listen closely. Yet he sounds unique, and uniquely British, qualities that the judges seek.
Maybe they gave the cheque to him because they felt mortified about host Lauren Laverne calling him James Blunt in her introduction. More likely they recognised a craftsman built to last in a fickle industry. The prize won’t be the making of him – he’s already on the right path.