The Bravest Mercury

By the time you read this the Mercury Music Prize winner will probably have been revealed. Everyone says it's going to Burial, which means it's probably going to be Laura Marling or something.

The Mercury Music Prize is an annual music award to an album by a British act, implicitly modelled after the standard format for literary awards. It tends to get a lot of publicity in the UK, perhaps because it might be the only music award which has reasonable credibility, treading a fine line between taste and populism and largely pleasing everyone. The winners, in retrospect, have been either bona-fide classics (Different Class) or largely forgotten but fondly remembered critical favourites (Ok) and almost every choice has stood the test of time with critics, perhaps at the expense of some rather unexciting picks. Sure, occasionally they've slipped up, like when they gave the good but hardly innovative Ms Dynamite an urban-crowd-appeasing Mercury a few months before the grime phenomenon broke, but they corrected it straight away the next year by overlooking the usual indie candidates and picking Dizzee Rascal.

Only one album in the history of the prize stands out as truly controversial. 1994 was one of the portal years of britpop, with huge critical and commercial success for Pulp and Blur. Other albums, like those by Therapy? and The Prodigy, are still classics within their respective genres. And yet, for the first and (so far) last time, the prize instead went to a pure commercial pop act, and one at that that's largely forgotten today. To most people, it was a mistake. To me, it was probably the bravest decision the jury ever made, totally at odds with the press-pandering careful taste that's been their hallmark ever since.

Elegant Slumming by M People is, to me, perhaps the finest album of the 1990s altogether, and certainly the best album the Hacienda scene ever produced. Not only that, but it completely symbolises everything that was good about 90s music.

Usually, I have to say, I appreciate the harder-edged, multi-levelled music of the eighties and the new millennium more. But Elegant Slumming is the nineties done good. Rather than aiming for the cleanly recorded, sharp, spacious eighties sound the album is almost wholly organic, using warm textures in appropriate amounts to bind together the songs without (as was common at the time) outmudding the textural detail. Correct balance like that, and subtlety in general, is another definite nineties quality that permeates the album - nothing stands out, the sharp edges have been oh-so-softly rounded off, yet only just the right amount. The cover of the very eighties track "Don't Look Any Futher" is only such a subtle transformation, a little flipping of focus, but it suddenly is made to feel very elegant and very nineties and totally fits into the album as a whole.

And then there's the sense of unification that permeates the album. The creators have wildly different backgrounds in soul and post-punk and underground dance, yet it's hardly noticeable where different things come from - there are just there rhythms and instrumental tracks and melody snippets that seem to belong yet actually come from somewhere else. There's bits of synthesizer sounds and sampled live instruments, sometimes extending into whole solos, that you can't quite put your finger on where they come from because they all sound so natural and fresh in the context. When you do find something you recognize the source of, it's usually something esoteric like phrygian modal jazz. The only occasion this subtle organic unification breaks down is the only weak track on the album, the cod-merengue "La Vida Loca".

All this wouldn't matter if it the songs weren't any good, but they are - the song craftsmanship is structurally impeccable and instantly memorable, if (you guessed it) done in a very subtle way. Together with the level of detail (you constantly discover new ideas, new rhythms and new textures on every listen, especially in stereo) it makes an album that's a pleasure to listen to repeatedly, rare for such seemingly throwaway fodder. And am I wrong in thinking that as we move on in this decade, there are definitely sings that the kinds of values offered by Elegantly Slumming might be reconsidered again?

I would set up an MP3 download link, but the album is widely available both legally and illegally. I know, for instance, that one particularly demonic BitTorrent site has a lossless FLAC copy.


Anonymous said...

Elbow? That was kind of, uhm, boring. Elbow doesn't interest me a bit.

Birdseed said...

Yeah, that was weird. Mind you, I've never even thought about listening to that album, maybe they've changed since I last heard them in about 2002.

Birdseed said...

I finally had a chance to listen to Elbow's record, and it's not half bad. Miles from when I last heard any of them.