Saturday 24 February 2018

Can the XX escape the Mercury curse?

Winners of the UK music prize have had mixed fortunes, says Ed Power

Red letter day: Mercury Prize winners The xx
Red letter day: Mercury Prize winners The xx
Speech Debelle won last year. Photo: PA
Ed Power

Ed Power

If you'd turned on BBC 2 at around 10.30 pm on Tuesday night, you could be forgiven for thinking Bros were staging a dramatic comeback. A dead ringer for Luke Goss circa 1987, xx front-man Oliver Sim was leading his band to the podium to receive arguably the most prestigious gong in music -- the Mercury Prize for the year's best album.

"It's felt a bit like a haze to us. Being here has been a weird moment of clarity," the singer informed the great and the good of the UK music industry, which has assembled at Grosvenor House in central London for the awards ceremony. "It just means so much."

"It has the most amazing sense of mood and atmosphere and there is really nothing quite like it," said judges' chairman Simon Frith, of The xx's self-titled debut.

"Thanks to a number of adverts and endorsements, the album had imprinted itself on the public's consciousness. It appears to have become like part of the soundscape in an almost invisible fashion. It also captures a sense of the uneasy times we live in. It's a very urban record."

You may have never heard of The xx (pronounced 'x x' rather than 'double x') but are almost certainly familiar with their gloomy sound. As Frith alluded, songs such as 'Crystalised' and '2.0' have been popping up all over the place. Now, with the Mercury tucked into their belts, the trio are poised to move up to the next level.

The Mercury 'bounce' can have a miraculous effect on a group's career, with a record that has previously languished in the doldrums suddenly shooting up the charts. The music industry, for one, expects great things from The xx.

Gennaro Castaldo of HMV Ireland says: "Of all the albums nominated, this is the one that probably has the most scope to sell a load more if it won, so retailers and the band's label are likely to be very happy.

"Their debut album has enjoyed fantastic word of mouth and very respectable sales since its release, but with the Mercury prize now lighting the touch paper, we expect demand for it to really rocket."

The xx were early favourites for the prize, a fact which, as September approached, appeared to mitigate against their actually winning it (the Mercury judges are notorious for twiddling their noses at popular opinion).

Indeed by Tuesday night, their chances were regarded as more or less extinguished as a surge of last-minute betting installed crinkly modfather Paul Weller as bookie's choice. There were even whisperings that Dubliner Conor O'Brien's Villagers project, the dark horse among the nominees, was about to unseat expectations and claim Ireland's first Mercury.

"Conor O'Brien did himself proud -- his performance went down incredibly well in the auditorium, and, more importantly, came across fantastically well on TV," says Castaldo.

"So we expect a real surge in demand for his album, and whilst he may not have triumphed on the night, he has certainly emerged as one of the big winners from this year."

Musically, The xx may be all about shadows and alienation. However, their story is old-fashioned and heart-warming. Sim and guitarist Romy Madley Croft have known each other since play-school. In 2005, they formed The xx at Elliott School, a 'Fame academy'-style comprehensive in London, other past pupils of which include Pierce Brosnan, members of Hot Chip and the reclusive dubstep artist Burial.

"We've known each other since nursery school," Sim told me in the band's first Irish interview last year. "Since we were three years old, basically. I think at that age your parents chose your friends for you. I'm pretty happy with my mum's choice."

Even at that early point in his career, the then 20-year-old appeared ambivalent about the rock and roll life. "None of us are natural performers," he said. "We don't dance about on stage. And I think that comes across."

As the victors floated towards the podium on Tuesday, TV cameras cut to the unsuccessful nominees. Most, it must be said, looked spectacularly moochy.

O'Brien, no Captain Smiley at the best of time, seemed on the brink of tears. Someone should have pointed out that while the Mercury can imbue overnight fame, it can just as easily derail a career.

Not for nothing do people in the industry speak of a Mercury 'curse'.

Consider last year's winner, Speech Debelle, whose debut LP Speech Therapy was in the process of becoming a modest word-of-mouth success when she won. Suddenly expectations for this bleak, rather inaccessible album were ratcheted up to ridiculous levels. When it proceeded to shift a paltry 10,000 units, the media started to joke about the "Speech Debacle" and Debelle had a falling out with her record company.

Similarly, 2007 winners Klaxons found the post-Mercury pressure nearly too much to bear. Having partied to excess in the months after their victory, they came down with a crippling case of writer's block as they settled in to record their follow-up. Presented with the finished LP, their label told them it was much too weird and that they needed to return to the studio and knock out some singles. When Klaxons at last surfaced it was to tout a baffling heavy metal project called Surfing the Void.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying Conor O'Brien ought not be too upset as he contemplates life after the Mercury.

His nomination has generated plenty of buzz in the UK and his performance at the ceremony was regarded as the strongest on the night. To have had the mantle of Mercury Prize winner rested on his shoulders with only a single LP might have been too much, too soon.

This morning The xx may be the Mercury Prize holders. But it will be some time before we know who the real winners are.

Irish Independent

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