So the winner of this year’s Mercury Prize was announced on Friday, showcasing once again the very best of the British and Irish music industry from the past year. This year’s excellent shortlist included established names Florence and the Machine and Aphex Twin, rising stars Wolf Alice and Slaves as well as complete unknowns C Duncan and ESKA (exactly, no idea). However, the winner was British-French singer, poet and pianist Benjamin Clementine for his album “At Least for Now”, a well-suited and maybe even predictable outcome for the 2015 competition.
The key word in describing each winner of the Mercury Prize seems to be ‘daring’. All of the winners of the past few years don’t just deliver musically solid and also enjoyable albums, but push the boundaries of their genre and stand out from the rest. Think of the cryptic and unorthodox folk/rock sounds of Alt-J’s “An Awesome Wave”, the richly textured and layered electronics of James Blake’s “Overgrown” or the primal and intense rap of Young Fathers’ “Dead”. In comparison, Benjamin Clementine is extremely daring, but in a rather different way. Nowadays, technology allows musicians to experiment endlessly and create sounds that no one apart from them could imagine. Whilst it’s brilliant that music can be constantly evolving and progressing, this wealth of choice with what an album can sound like, can make music cluttered and sometimes completely incoherent. Benjamin Clementine dares to go back to a simpler time. His music is composed of nothing but his voice, a piano and some simple percussion or strings, and it is so refreshing.
Clementine was born in London, but relocated to Paris aged 19, living a bohemian lifestyle busking and creating music and this French influence is definitely strong as he reminds me of classic French singers such as Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour or Georges Brassens. His minimalist approach definitely works too as on the songs I’ve listened to, his voice is fantastic. It’s deep, resonating and powerful, which makes songs such as “Condolence” truly captivating without having extravagant instrumentals to keep the listener interested. Others such as “Cornerstone” are just beautiful with an elegant piano arpeggio looping throughout the song and Clementine perhaps forsakes vocal accuracy for raw emotion as he expresses deep issues of loss and isolation. I can’t really say much more in detail about the songs themselves because it’s just simple, stripped-back, honest music that still manages to be deeply moving and dramatic. You just have to sit and listen and let yourself be absorbed by it.
In summary then, the jury’s verdict for this year’s Mercury Prize is certainly justified as they’ve again chosen the most ambitious and adventurous artist of the year. It just so happens that this year’s winner proves that great music can come from the humblest of backgrounds and that sometimes less, is so much more.