Speech Debelle has won the 2009 Mercury Prize for her album Speech Therapy. Quite a surprise, perhaps; but a good result, I think: it’s been a long time since a hip-hop album last won, and even longer since a woman last won — and it’s nice to see one of the lesser-known nominees win. Congratulations, Speech!
I’ve come to the end of my journey through this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist (if you’ve missed them, my individual posts are here), so it’s time for some final thoughts, and a bit of pointless-but-I’m-going-to-do-it-anyway speculation on who might actually win.
I must say I’m pleased that all the shortlisted albums have their own distinctive sounds, and work well as albums rather than just collections of songs. Having said that, there is one album on the list that stands out to me as being that bit more complete and well-crafted – so Lisa Hannigan is my pick of the shortlist. (Second place goes to Sweet Billy Pilgrim, whose album is of a broadly similar standard, but is let down by one track.)
Who will win?
Last year, the judges and I agreed over which album was best; but I suspect that won’t happen again this time. I find it hard to envision the quiet craft of Lisa Hannigan winning out over all the other contenders; but of course I’ll be delighted if proved wrong.
What of the others, then? I think the Prize is a very open field this year; it’s extremely difficult to mark out particular albums as being obviously stronger (or weaker) contenders. Nevertheless, I think we can discount a few straight away: I don’t hear anything in Led Bib’s album to make me think they will blaze a trail by becoming the first jazz act to win the Mercury. And the Kasabian and La Roux albums are the patchiest on the list, so I think the judges will find better candidates than those.
Taking the remaining acts in roughly descending order of fame: Bat for Lashes and Florence and the Machine are almost two sides of the same coin; combine the best aspects of both and you’d have an excellent album. As it is, I think both are in with a good chance; but I suspect the greater dynamism of Florence’s album will give her the edge.
Turning to the better-known guitar bands, Glasvegas are probably the most conventional act on the list; that may lessen their chances in this field, good as their music is. Friendly Fires are likewise good at what they do, but I think the judges may go for a more varied album. The dramatic atmosphere of The Horrors’ album probably gives them the best chance of the three.
That leaves three acts who were largely unknown before the Mercury nominations (hopefully they will not remain so for much longer!); and I think The Invisible, Speech Debelle, and Sweet Billy Pilgrim are all in with a shout. Sweet Billy Pilgrim may have a slight edge, but all three are genuine contenders.
It’s a tough call, but I have a feeling that, in the end, it will come down to a contest between Florence and the Machine and The Horrors, and that Florence will take it.
Of course, I’m just guessing here, as I’ve no real idea what the judges will think. But I do know this: the Mercury Prize in 2009 is a genuinely open contest which both the best-known and most obscure acts have the potential to win. I look forward to hearing the announcement tomorrow night.
Video: ‘The Key’
And so we come to the début album by London rapper Corynne Elliott, alias Speech Debelle — and I may be stuck for much to say about it. The thing is, I’m just not into rap. Like jazz, I can’t appreciate it properly; and that’s bound to affect how I judge Speech Therapy. We’ll see how it goes…
Of all the albums on the Mercury shortlist, this must be the most intensely personal. Debelle’s lyrics draw on such experiences as her father walking out on her and her mother (‘Daddy’s Little Girl’), and living in hostels (‘Searching’). ‘This is my speech therapy, this isn’t rap,’ she says on the title track; and there’s a strong sense of catharsis throughout the album. But there’s hope and celebration on tracks like ‘Buddy Love’.
So, Speech Therapy isn’t my cup of tea; but, with its acoustic backing and personal lyrics, it’s a distinctive rap album.
Video: ‘Working Weak’ (live)
Read my other Mercury 2009 posts here.