September 20, 2018
The quartet’s shapeshifting blend of shoegaze, grunge and folk was rightly loved by the Mercury judges, but this is a prize fewer and fewer people care about – so something needs to change
Wolf Alice are worthy winners – but the Mercury prize must think bigger
It feels strange to relate that, some years ago, a criticism levelled against the Mercury Prize was that its shortlist was too diverse: how, naysayers wondered, could anyone make a meaningful qualitative judgment between James Macmillan’s cantata for choir and strings, Seven Last Words from the Cross, and I Should Coco by Supergrass? It was an interesting point, but recent Mercury shortlists have nevertheless offered an object lesson in Being Careful What You Wish For.
This year’s offered not even a vague pretence of covering a wide range of music: its two jazz entries aside, it was a narrow sampling of albums from the mainstream or, at best, a couple of inches to the left of it. The chairman of the judges, Radio 2 and BBC 6Music controller Jeff Smith, found himself presiding over a list substantially less eclectic than the output of either of his stations: no folk music, nothing avant garde, nothing from the spectrum of hard rock, no modern classical, not even any dance music. The quality of the shortlisted entries ranged from overhyped to pretty good to unequivocally excellent, but there were no curveballs, nothing to frighten the horses, nothing you wouldn’t already know about if you had been keeping abreast of a broadsheet newspaper’s music pages. Dark conspiracy-theory-minded mutterings were heard about the fact that the Mercury, sponsored by Hyundai, is now run by the BPI, the same organisation that runs the Brits, an annual event indefatigable in its efforts to make British music appear less interesting than it actually is.

The problem with a limited shortlist is that it can reflect back on the eventual winner: there’s more value in being first out of a wildly varied and intriguing selection of albums than there is in being first out of a limited and predictable list. That’s unfortunate in the case of Wolf Alice’s Visions of a Life, which was undoubtedly one of the better albums up for the prize. The quartet are nobody’s idea of a wildly innovative band, but, by the standards of latterday British indie rock, Visions of a Life is varied, restless and wide in scope: it shifts from ethereal folk to punk-ish anger, from waves of drifting guitar influenced by 90s shoegazing bands to glacial synthpop to grungy howl. It’s also ambitious: the title track comes in three episodic parts, sprawling for the best part of eight minutes. The band’s skill lies in their ability to essay so many different alt-rock styles without sounding like they’re trying out ideas in search of an identity of their own. That Visions of a Life feels like a coherent album rather than a miscellany has a lot to do with vocalist Ellie Rowsell, who’s both an intriguing lyricist and a commanding, charismatic presence, with a voice that slips from an urgent whisper to ethereal gothic coo to splenetic howl.
Wolf Alice are worthy winners – but the Mercury prize must think bigger
Wolf Alice winning the Mercury doesn’t really come as a surprise: Visions of a Life was critically acclaimed and commercially successful, entering the charts at No 2. But the Mercury at the moment doesn’t deal in surprises, which you suspect might be its biggest problem, the reason it feels like an award that’s losing its cachet – one that people aren’t that bothered about. It needs to do something to get said cachet back: broadening out its musical remit would be a start.
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