Ten days ago Crotchety Man watched the awards ceremony for the 2016 Mercury Prize on the TV. The scheduling was confusing. At 7 o’clock there was a one-hour program on ‘the red button’ (a channel up in the six hundreds most easily found by clicking the red button on the TV remote) and this was followed by another one-hour slot on the primary BBC TV channel. As far as I could make out all twelve of the artists on the Mercury Prize shortlist would perform in the first hour and the awards ceremony itself would be covered in the second.
I have considerable respect for the Mercurys. Unlike the Brits, which are restricted to pop music, the Mercury Prize accepts nominations from a wide range of genres including pop, rock, folk, urban, dance, jazz, blues, electronica and classical. In practice, there have been no classical nominations since 2002 and there has only ever been one nomination for a heavy metal album. In spite of those omissions the Mercury Prize judges usually manage to pick an album by an artist that deserves greater recognition than they have so far received. Following that award is usually a good way for Crotchety Man to broaden his sonic horizons.
So, eager to hear a broad range of songs and hoping to stumble on something new and exciting, I sat down at 7 pm to be informed and entertained. This wasn’t completely new territory – I had already heard a few of the songs from the nominated albums – and I was soon building up a mental scoresheet. There were a couple of songs that weren’t to my taste but, with one exception, they all seemed worthy of the shortlist.
I am now going to break two rules of the Crotchety Man blog: I am going to mention what I would classify as a hip-hop song and I’m going to condemn it as worthless. (Don’t worry. This will be a small diversion. I shall be much more positive again shortly.)
The one track that should never have made the Mercury Prize TV show was something called Shutdown by a rapper called Spekta. When I heard it in that first hour I took an instant dislike to it. According to the TV presenter Shutdown is an example of Grime music which, I discovered recently, is not the same as hip-hop. Apparently, Grime is very popular in the clubs at the moment so, grudgingly, I reset the Crotchety Music Appreciation Meter and applied it to every detail of the song. Although I calibrated and re-calibrated my instruments I could not find any sign of quality music. It seemed to be nothing more than a strong beat and endless repetitions of the word ‘shutdown’.
At the end of the 7 o’clock programme, presented by Shaun Keveney (I think), we had only seen six of the twelve shortlisted artists. Switching over to BBC 1 I hoped we would now get to hear the other six. Disappointingly, the second hour featured exactly the same performances, only this time presented by Lauren Laverne. As the second show was supposed to be live I am at a loss to explain how they did that. Once again the Spekta song failed to register on the Appreciation Meter; the needle didn’t even tremble.
Finally, we came to the award itself. The Mercury Prize is given for the best album from the UK and Ireland released in the previous 12 months. There is only one award and the presentation is mercifully short. Jarvis Cocker teased the audience by saying that, in the end, the choice was between two ‘black stars’. This was obviously a reference to David Bowie’s Black Star and Michael Kiwanuka’s Love and Hate. Black Star was the bookies favourite and Love and Hate was also regarded as a strong contender. A sense of relief washed over Crotchety Man. The Mercury Prize this year would be at least moderately well deserved.
In his award presentation speech Jarvis Cocker went on to say that, if David Bowie was looking down on the venue he would be delighted that the Mercury Prize for 2016 goes to … Spekta‘s Konnichiwa. And at that Crotchety Man became very crotchety indeed. “No, mate, David Bowie would not be at all pleased with that”, he spat at the TV. Dumbfounded and immobilised by the shock Crotchety Man sat through the cheers and the congratulations, half listened to the acceptance speech and suffered Shutdown for a third time in two hours as the credits rolled.
The judging panel clearly took leave of their senses this year. If they had chosen Bowie’s Black Star no-one would have been surprised and few would have been disappointed. If they wanted to show their appreciation for black artists they could have gone for Michael Kiwanuka or Laura Mvula. If they were looking for something a little out of the ordinary they could have chosen something by Bat for Lashes or The Comet Is Coming. There were some genuinely good albums on the shortlist. But Crotchety Man is not bitter. If you have been slighted, they say, “don’t get mad, get even”. In that spirit I shall do what I can to redress the balance by bringing to your attention another album on the shortlist, Hopelessness by Anohni.
Although I had heard the name Anohni a couple of times on the radio and filed it away in the mental rolodex under “sounds like Nina Simone or Benjamin Clementine” I knew nothing about the artist. As you can tell from my comment I wasn’t even sure if the voice was male or female. A little Googling soon cleared that up. Anohni was born a boy and called Antony Hegarty (the Antony in Antony and the Johnsons) but from the age of 5 Antony knew she was a girl inside. Anohni is the name of the woman that little Antony grew up to be. There’s a wonderfully insightful article on Anohni in the Guardian that’s well worth reading if you have a few minutes to spare.
Anohni has described Hopelessness as “an electronic record with some sharp teeth”. The teeth come in the form of protest songs. But it’s not the protest of Bob Dylan who stood aloof from the decaying society that he sang about so eloquently. It’s an altogether more anguished recognition that Anohni is herself part of the problems, complicit in the politics that allow wars to be waged and ecosystems to be destroyed.
All the songs rage and rail against the injustice and destruction that the human race is inflicting on itself. 4 Degrees is specifically about climate change. If we do nothing to prevent it the experts predict that the world will be 4° C warmer by the end of the century than it was in 2000. That’s a critical temperature rise. It may even be enough to tip the climate into a runaway greenhouse effect that will wipe most species off the face of the Earth. Most of us are doing little or nothing about it and for Anohni that’s as bad as deliberately setting fire to our precious planet.
It’s only four degrees, it’s only four degrees.
. . .
I wanna see this world, I wanna see it boil.
. . .
I wanna see the fish go belly up in the seas.
. . .
I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze
I wanna see the animals die in the trees.
The music is equally apocalyptic. Drum machines crash and thunder; fire and brimstone blare out from synthesisers. The rocks are melting and the seas are roiling as if the Earth is being born again. And yet, some beauty survives. A celestial brass band blows huskily; orchestral strings float down from every corner of heaven. And the voice of God rumbles through the singer’s throat, neither male nor female, transcendent, breath-taking, enthralling.
When Crotchety Man sat down to watch the Mercury Prize shows on TV he was hoping to be introduced to an album like Hopelessness. Something that doesn’t quite make the charts because it’s not the flavour of the month. Something with genuine musical merit. Anohni’s first solo album fits the bill perfectly. It would have been a worthy winner of the Mercury Prize. Ah, well, there’s always next year. If we haven’t fried the planet by then.