There is a sense in which the Mercury prize has benefited from the coronavirus pandemic. True, the award ceremony itself had to be cancelled – cruelly depriving music industry bigwigs of their annual opportunity to talk loudly all the way through live performances by those nominees in which they don’t have a vested interest – but in terms of television exposure, it’s suddenly gone supernova. For years, the Mercury has been bounced around the schedules in a way that somehow suggested TV executives didn’t think anyone was that interested. It was hard to escape the feeling that, if things got much worse, it was going to end up on one of those weird channels on your programme guide’s outer limits that show back-to-back repeats of On the Buses.
But look at it today: the winner announced live on primetime BBC One, as part of The One Show. Clearly a step up, but one that posed certain questions. The One Show may be many things, but renowned for its commitment to music’s cutting edge isn’t one of them. Its dabblings in rock and pop tend to the mainstream: put it this way, if you want to see Geri Horner, nee Halliwell, performing her self-penned tribute to the late George Michael, get yourself over to its iPlayer clips archive pronto. Despite the presence of Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac in the studio, tireless in her efforts to interest the hosts in Moses Boyd’s role within the new wave of British jazz or in genre-defying classical composer Anna Meredith, the possibility of, say, Porridge Radio being announced as winner to a puzzled silence and blank looks all round seemed distinct.
Instead, it went to Michael Kiwanuka’s eponymous third album, which seemed more than fair enough. Kiwanuka is a fantastic album, the sound of an artist who started out very much in the shadow of his influences – his 2012 debut Home Again showed off a great voice and a burgeoning songwriting ability, but audibly involved a fairly concerted effort to make something that sounded like Bill Withers or Terry Callier – coming up with music that still has links to the past, but feels entirely his own, an alternately gritty and dreamlike fusion of soul, psychedelic rock, gospel, lush orchestration and samples that has a curiously haunting quality about it. It tackles racism and police brutality, its tone swinging affectingly between despair and hope, and sets those topics against lyrics that feel more introspective, dealing with self-doubt, anxiety and its author’s Christian faith. It’s provocative, warm and sincere and it’s also packed with superb songs.
Kiwanuka has sold respectably, rather than spectacularly: it went silver, but it deserves to do better. Thought-provoking and full of depth, but a beguilingly easy listen thanks to the sheer quality of the writing, arrangements and Kiwanuka’s voice, it’s an album that warrants more mainstream attention than it’s thus far had – something that people right across the broad church of One Show viewers might enjoy if they’d been exposed to it. Now they have, albeit briefly. For a moment, and in the most improbable circumstances, the Mercury prize seemed to have a point.