Friday 15 December 2017

I heard the 'Muse' today, oh boy!

The controversial decision to award this year's Choice Music Prize to the Divine Comedy's Victory For The Comic Muse has generated a heated and healthy debate about the purpose and viability of the newfangled prize.

The controversial decision to award this year's Choice Music Prize to the Divine Comedy's Victory For The Comic Muse has generated a heated and healthy debate about the purpose and viability of the newfangled prize.

For once, I'm writing this from the perspective of someone on the inside looking out, having been one of the 12 jurors who sat in judgement on that February night. Alas, I've sworn not to reveal the machinations of what went on behind those closed doors in Vicar St. But I can say that I found the experience of debating, deliberating and deconstructing the shortlist for the Irish album of the year both exhilarating and emotionally exhausting.

Good, strong cases were made for many of the nominees - in fact, my fellow judges proved to be as persuasive as they were passionate, but always polite. Suddenly, from a position of certainty, I could see faults in albums that previously I had judged untouchable. Conversely, I was given reason to reconsider records that I had initially deigned unworthy of inclusion on the shortlist.

And, occasionally, there were times when I just thought: "You must be effing joking!"

If it wasn't for the fact that we had a strict deadline to meet and a thousand-strong crowd waiting patiently for the plume of white smoke to stream out of the air vent, I suspect we would still be sitting there arguing the toss today.

So eventually teeth were gnashed and dreams were dashed; hands were wrung and surprises were sprung. And, in the end, the Northerner who has made a salubrious South Dublin suburb his home defied media power and Paddy Power and walked away with the trophy and the 10 grand; a victory for the Ranelagh mews.

Judging by the reaction of the crowd in Vicar St, Neil Hannon was a popular winner, but no one seemed more stunned when chairman Jim Carroll delivered the verdict than the Divine Comedy singer himself.

After all, Si Schroeder had snaked his way to the top of the betting stakes, having been widely tipped as the dark horse of the shortlist. Some took it as read that us judges would reward his left-field endeavour and DIY attitude.

On the other hand, his detractors felt that to honour this quirky slice of bedroom electronica would be to place the Choice Prize in an obscurantist indie ghetto from which it might never escape.

Others thought Fionn Regan's album, The End Of History, should have been garlanded for breathing new life into a tired, clapped-out genre. At last, here was one string-plucking troubadour who made us want to prick up our ears rather than put our hands over them. But despite losing out on the night, it still feels like the beginning of something for Fionn, not the end.

Duke Special would also have been very a popular winner of the prize. But the self-same qualities that made him so irresistible to some observers made others want to poke their own eye out with a fork. It was always going to be all or nothing when it came to the Duke - and in the end it was nothing.

Good money was also wagered on Dublin indie outfit The Immediate coming up trumps. In another year, with a different set of jurors, maybe they would have romped to victory. But not tonight, Josephine.

The fact that we chose the Divine Comedy was seen by some as a backward step after last year's audacious decision to favour the unsigned Julie Feeney over major-label radio faves BellX1. It was argued by the watercooler that this year's prize felt like a Lifetime Achievement award for an industry veteran whose best years are behind him. Instead, they said, it should have gone to a new, progressive act who really needs the exposure and kudos that winning the Choice bestows - like Messiah J & The Expert, Republic Of Loose and so on. And unlike Snow Patrol.

Those happy with Victory's victory felt that this was Hannon's best album since Casanova, and that we should disregard the fact that he's been around the block a few times and acknowledge first-rate songwriting when we hear it - the only criterion that should matter. Personally, I didn't begrudge Hannon his award one bit, but there were others I'd like to have seen walk away with the gong for precisely the reasons discussed above. Heck, two of the best Irish albums of last year - The Frank And Walters' A Renewed Interest In Happiness and the Electric Penguins' Goodbye From The Electric Penguins - didn't even get nominated.

So it goes. We made our Choice. Has the prize suffered a mortal blow? I doubt it. The judges' decision was final, not fatal. Two years in, there is already a trend developing - always expect the unexpected.

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