Why Elbow’s ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ Was The Wrong Choice for the Nationwide Mercury Music Prize 2008

By Jamie Janakov, from PlayLouder:

There’s no denying Guy Garvey and co. have written the greatest album of their career so far, and while I’ve never been much of a fan in the past, I still had to acknowledge ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ as a considerable achievement. It’s spawned at least two monster-sized singles, and it’s a long and winding road of an album, with sights and sounds more sublime and beautiful than any they’ve created before.

It is, however, completely the wrong choice. It’s a lazy choice. It’s a safe choice. And it’s the wrong choice.

Nobody will begrudge Elbow the award; this is the most popular decision in the award’s history, is what people are saying. Fuck that; I begrudge them the award. I didn’t think I would. I predicted they’d get it (albeit too close to the moment to put any money on them). I didn’t expect to feel any sense of indignation or injustice seeing the jovial drunken uncle figure of Guy Garvey clutching it in his hands. However, when it came down to it, there was a slightly sour taste.

For a start – everyone knows Burial should have won. Everyone. At least everyone who’s heard ‘Untrue’. It's an album like no other, and an utterly astounding listen, first time or fiftieth time around. One of the rent-a-quote chaps beforehand rather astutely put it: “If Burial doesn’t win, it’s because he didn’t turn up.” There’s a theory. Because he didn’t turn up. Or because they knew he wouldn’t turn up.

The whole point is that the decision is made purely on the basis of the music on the albums. And that, quite simply, has not been the case.

Award ceremonies have always been there as a buffer for the heavyweights of the industry. The Mercury Prize was set up as an alternative to the industry-dominated staples like the BRITs. I'm not saying they've always been wrong, or, necessarily, ever been right, but it seems they are increasingly being used to keep the rich rich and the poor poor. Or, more obviously, to keep power in the hands of those who have the power.

It’s easy to see Elbow as underdogs – they’ve slogged away making pretty decent music for years and only now on their fourth album have they achieved the recognition they deserved…

That’s the official line.

This is my perspective; Elbow have slogged away for years, like thousands of other bands, because they’ve lacked that genius that sets some bands – very few bands – apart. Elbow have been lucky to survive – lucky even to get a deal in the first place. Elbow are being rewarded for playing the game. Elbow are being rewarded for being a good music industry story.

People in the music industry love Elbow because they speak of a time which is gone, and which the industry is still furiously trying to resuscitate; pumping away at its chest, administering electric shocks, blowing air into its cold lungs, and imminently mounting it and collapsing, weeping, on its clammy, bloated chest.

If you’re going to reward a band for slogging away where others would chuck it all in and get a job in advertising, or, indeed, if you’re going to reward a band for a big bastard of an indie rock album, look no further than British Sea Power.

Do You Like Rock Music?’ is huge, sprawling, complicated, but oh, so inviting. It is, put simply, better than ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’. British Sea Power have never been great favourites of the music industry though – they’re a bit… well… odd. They’re weird and unpredictable and they do things very much their own way. They’ve survived, cockroachlike, without the help of the outside world, and that independence, that determination, that complete and utter pigheaded weirdness which allows them, nay, forces them to be utterly unique, that feeling absolutely dominates their third album.

What dominates Elbow’s is the sound of a pretty good band becoming a very good band – the sound of five musicians pushing themselves beyond their limits. It’s good, but come off it; it’s not truly great. This will not be an album we look back on in twenty years time, shake their heads and say ‘Fuck me, how did they do it?’.

Neither, to be fair, will many of the others. Adele and Laura Marling, personal tastes aside, have both shown great promise with their debuts, but both are inherently flawed works that are sure to be improved upon in the future. Robert Plant, Portico Quartet and Estelle are all decent in their ways, but pretty much making up the numbers. The Last Shadow Puppets I confess to considering an utterly pointless entity, but it matters not as they were never going to bestow Mr. Turner with a second award in so short a space of time.

Radiohead? Well, I hate Radiohead, but I’ll admit ‘In Rainbows’ was a worthy contender, and as likely to be chosen as anything Damon Albarn produces.

Neon Neon were the joker of the pack, but the real joke is that their most unlikely of albums, ‘Stainless Style’, which seems the bizarre fruit of an entirely random seed plucked from Gryff’s crazy brain, is in itself a more deserving winner than Elbow’s effort.

The real oversight here is the album barely mentioned in the blogs; I’ve read account upon account of the Mercury nominees, which has entirely overlooked ‘The Bairns’. The most charitable make a value judgement that it’s the ‘token’ folk entry, and leave it at that.

More fool them. Rachel Unthank & The Winterset’s second album is so much more than that. It’s a landmark album. Not just in the folk ghetto, either - for one thing, folk music is much more important now that it has been for a long time. And for a band like The Winterset to be thrown into the limelight like this is a great thing. It’s just a shame that it wasn’t enough for many of the commentators to actually listen to it.

The Bairns’ is an album of immense proportions; sublime, funny, tragic and deeply fascinating. Not only is it an expertly-crafted showcase of the history and traditions of a people, (and – moreover – a colourful and overlooked region of the UK), it’s also a mirror held up by the past that presents a clearer picture of the present than most of - if not all of - the songs collected on the other eleven albums.

Give or take Burial’s excellent urbano-gothic nightmare of a musical melting pot, this is the album that truly deserved to win; and this was the real underdog, because compared with Elbow’s overwrought indie rock behemoth, an album as subtle, as delicate, as unashamedly independent, unfashionable, and ambitious as this one never had a hope in hell.

I could build a fucking castle with all the press releases I got this year from the industry machine that’s been piled behind ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’. Like many others, I happened upon ‘The Bairns’ almost by accident. That it was nominated is a blessing, perhaps, but that this album, along with Burial’s astounding effort, lost out to Elbow – that is nothing short of a travesty of justice.

The world ain’t ready for the likes of Unthank & co. to receive an honour like this. And it won't be any time soon either.

And what joy for the backslapping wankers snorting coke backstage if a ‘fuck-you’ figure like Burial goes home (sorry, stays home) the richer?

It's a shower of shite, and as much of a sham as the crappy movie award show on ITV right before it.

Burial has himself professed to be only about the music, and perhaps that's worked against him here; that the decision on Tuesday night’s broadcast was based purely on the music on the albums is simply - if you’ll allow me to take a liberty - untrue.