Mercury Prize: Disproving the Dreaded Mercury Curse
Congratulations, then, to The xx. The young London band won 2010's Mercury Prize for their sort-of-eponymous debut album, a frail record of such slightness and deliberate space that to bestow too much praise upon it would surely fracture it to its uneasy-of-emotion core. It's a collection of real promise, effective in the immediate but, more fascinatingly, full of glimpses of potential as yet unrealised. Anyone who has seen the band live since their debut's release in the summer of 2009 will know how they've embraced a confidence markedly absent during their first few shows. If they carry this into album two, relative fireworks can be expected.
Now that the dust has settled somewhat on their victory, and that £20k cheque's been deposited (they might use the prize money to build their own studio), it's time for some completely different checks, of a reality nature. One, the band are going to sell a lot more copies of xx - and it wasn't doing too badly anyway, with some 180,000 copies sold prior to their Mercury triumph. Two, the three members are going to have to contend with being very well known, recognisable to people who previously had the vaguest knowledge of them as a faceless act responsible for lending a song (Intro) to the BBC's general election coverage trailers (and numerous other documentaries, dramas, comedies; you name a programme made in the last 12 months, it's probably had The xx's music feature on it somewhere). And three, they're going to have to sidestep the Dreaded Mercury Curse.
Or, are they? A popular opinion amongst many critics, and blog-commenting music fans with their ears pressed firmest to the (under)ground, is that Mercury winners rarely experience success after their handshake from Jools and temporary sales boost. But I don't see it, a couple of exceptions aside. There is no Dreaded Mercury Curse, at all; it's just that some acts' success at the annual award ceremony coincides with their commercial peak, simple as.
Look for evidence of this curse, and of 18 winning artists few have slipped from favour after capturing the Mercury. The first winners, in 1992, were Primal Scream for their Screamadelica LP. It was the band's first real commercial success, and sales were certainly buoyed by their Mercury win; but while the group's fortunes did fade somewhat with their follow-up album, the muddled plod-rocker Give Out But Don't Give Up, their creative juices have never dried up. 1997's Vanishing Point was superb, 2000's XTRMNTR blindingly intense, and even their latest long-play set, 2008's Beautiful Future, had its share of highs. Cursed? Far from it - after their Mercury win, Primal Scream soared like never before.
Suede, winners in 1993 for their fiery yet elegant eponymous debut, were not struck by any curse either. Their next album, Dog Man Star, remains the band's finest collection. M People's Elegant Slumming won in 1994, and their next album, Bizarre Fruit, spawned the enormo-hit Search for the Hero. And so it goes, from Portishead's Dummy in 1995, Pulp's Different Class in 96, through to 1997 and Roni Size/Reprazent's New Forms. Which is where this curse-denying stance does come a little unstuck.
New Forms enjoyed its Mercury boost, and the group became festival heavyweights, calling at any stage with a soundsystem worthy of their tremendous drum'n'bass catalogue. But the music was never meant to be commercial; it wasn't written, or released, with sales figures in mind. So, appropriately, the group slowly slipped from the public eye, Size returning to the below-the-radar bass culture that he produced his magnum opus from the comfort of. Talvin Singh's Ok was another winner punching above its commercial weight, the 1999 victor now returned to the Brit-Asian electro underground. One has to fast-forward to last year's winner, Speech Debelle, to find the only other act whose career has gone rather awry since winning the Mercury.*
It's hardly conjecture to state that Speech Therapy, Debelle's gong-claiming debut, was an unexpected choice. I was at the Mercurys in 2009 and the atmosphere in the room when the winner was announced was strange indeed, many attendees expecting The Horrors, La Roux or even The Invisible, who enjoyed a great response to their on-the-night live performance, to take the prize. So, she was off to an unsure start already. Then Debelle - real name Corynne Elliot - had a falling out with her label, Big Dada. She claimed they had failed to properly market the album, which at no time broke into the UK top 40. The reality: it simply wasn't that great a record - decent, yes, but hardly a must-buy - and on that premise Speech had exceeded expectation levels in the most public way possible. Speech Therapy remains the lowest-selling Mercury winner of all time.
But was she cursed? No, of course not - she simply found herself at a stage of her career before the time was right, where the general public were directed towards her ability before it had properly matured. The same can, of course, be said of The xx - but unlike Speech Debelle's debut, the trio's set has already made significant commercial inroads. It has dug itself in, after charting in the top 40 on its first week of release largely through word of mouth, and returned to the upper end of the chart almost as soon as the Mercury shortlist was announced. They will, easily, avoid the Dreaded Mercury Curse.
Not least because, as the above surely proves, there is no such thing.
(* Unless, of course, you consider the chart performance of Klaxons' second album - it entered at 10 and slipped to 38 the next week - to be a result of the Dreaded Mercury Curse. But since this hasn't prevented the group from headlining festivals, performing to packed crowds or enjoying widespread radio playlisting for lead single Echoes, I'd say they're still doing alright.)
Mike Diver is editor of the BBC's Album Reviews service - find the latest album reviews HERE