Paul Morley on music: the Mercury music prize

It might turn a blind eye to frivolous pop and conceptual sound-art, but the Mercury is diligent in its balancing of everything in between

As you may have noticed, on Tuesday this week there will be a new Mercury album of the year, the 19th. Even though I spent much of the early 90s, when the award began, thinking that it was sponsored by Freddie Mercury – which seemed pretty decent and enlightened of him, and which somehow seemed to make sense of the first two winners being Primal Scream and Suede, and why, in 1994, M People beat Pulp, Blur, the Prodigy and a still-enraged Paul Weller – I've grown to accept it as a regular part of the rock season.

Along the way I've had to learn not to take it too seriously, and appreciate the fact that what began as a conscientious, enthusiastic post-indie antidote to the industry-clogged, business-based Brit awards has itself evolved into something more mainstream, compromised and self-congratulatory. This, clearly, is a sign of its success, of how it has come into its own as a ceremony doggedly championing the endangered idea of the serious-minded, vinyl-based album at a time when pop music is more than ever a matter of frivolous publicity, audition frenzy and the vacant manipulation of expectations.

Even though along the way the Mercury dropped the classical-based nomination, which once opened up areas of modern British music where most of the astounding, forward-looking experimentation with form and content was taking place, it has not yet lost those albums coming from more marginalised areas. It still nods knowingly in the direction of diversity, and to a fault it's reluctant to base any decision on sales figures, column inches or dubious fashionable presence.

Last year, Speech Debelle won, above Florence and the Machine and Kasabian, because, presumably, Speech Therapy was deemed objectively the better album, the most original and significant synthesis of influences. The Debelle victory presumably confirmed the unashamedly purist founding principles of the award – it defines where music is at culturally, as part of some greater abstract critical narrative, rather than where it is in the market. That the album didn't go on to achieve commercial success is irrelevant – although some say there will be a correction this year, for the sake of basic ratings, and a more universally noted album is more likely to win, an Arctic Monkeys rather than a Talvin Singh.

There is talk of a Mercury curse, causing the relative downfall if not disappearance of many that win, and although there must be an alteration in the nature of an act's career because they win, on the other hand, it's a little like having a hit, and you either know how to follow it up or you don't, because you were never destined to. If the xx win this year, it was meant to be, and if their album goes on to be a post-iTunes Dark Side of the Moon, that was how it should have been, and if they never make another album, swooning away into all the immense inner space there is inside their inhibited, fragile music, then that too was their fate, regardless of the Mercury. If Wild Beasts win, because their kinky, epicurean unification of influences, their connecting of the floating dots between Sparks and Springsteen, Aphrodite's Child and Tim Buckley, Pavlov's Dog and Mira Calix, Cocteau Twins and Sadistic Mika Band, Jobriath and Kate Bush, is considered completely trustworthy, they might become a new-fangled smart-pop sensation, or instantly implode. The Mercury will have contributed to either destiny, but it won't have been directly responsible.

I would have liked previous winners to have included Barry Adamson, Gavin Bryars, Eliza Carthy, Norma Waterson, Peter Maxwell Davies, John Surman, Underworld, Thomas Adès, Polar Bear, Burial, Led Bib, Portico Quartet and Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, but that's just pointless personal taste. I'm sure Roni Size beat OK Computer and Franz Ferdinand beat Robert Wyatt because of some incorruptible internal judgmental logic that resists the unreliable passions of a stray critic. In the end, the award has become exactly what it is: diligently, if a little murkily, balancing the obvious and the lightly unpredictable, the deserving and the unlikely, and having enough accumulated integrity – largely because of those brave, remote token acts enjoying, or at least experiencing, their brief moment in the glare – to mean it still counts as a register of roughly alternative endeavour.

I've never been a judge, which is a good thing all round, as I would probably go mad working out how to separate U2 and Jah Wobble, the Streets and Joanna MacGregor, and this year I would have been in a tormented sulk about the lack of These New Puritans. I am a judge, however, for the PRS for Music Foundation's New Music award, a £50,000 prize given a week after the Mercury to the composer(s) who comes up with the most intellectually, technically and creatively persuasive proposal for a post-Cagian conceptual piece of sound-art. Here is the sort of speculative, post-classical, non-album-based imagining the Mercury does not cover. The Mercury loves the traditional album, and what it can still mean. The New Music award considers what lies beyond, which might be the future, and which is yet to be publicised.


Paul Morley

The GuardianTramp

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