Arlo Parks won the 2021 Hyundai Mercury Prize with her debut album, “Collapsed in Sunbeams,” as the U.K. music industry awards circuit returned with a bang.
Parks was the hot favorite to take the prize, awarded to the best British/Irish album of the year, as judged by a panel of respected musicians, broadcasters and journalists. But that traditionally counts for little at the Mercury, an awards ceremony that is only predictable in its utter unpredictability.
After all, in 1994, it famously chose M People’s mainstream pop-soul “Elegant Slumming” over Blur’s all-conquering “Parklife,” while in 2007 it favored Klaxons’ nu-rave oddity “Myths of the Near Future” over Amy Winehouse’s classic “Back to Black.”
Indeed, Toby Langley, aka Toby L, co-founder of Parks’ Transgressive label, was playing down Parks’ chances’ to Variety earlier in the evening, having lost out with similarly fancied albums in the past. And Parks, usually known for her lyricism, was shocked enough to declare herself “speechless” from the podium as she picked up the award from judge and broadcaster Annie MacManus, aka Annie Mac.
“It took a lot of sacrifice and hard work to get here,” Parks added when she regained her composure, thanking Transgressive, PIAS and her management company, Beatnik. “There were moments when I wasn’t sure if I would make it through, but I’m here today.”
In truth, Parks’ uplifting indie-soul was probably the perfect feel-good winner to ease the industry back into normality. The Mercury Prize — run by the BPI, held at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith, West London and hosted with aplomb by BBC Radio 6 Music DJ Lauren Laverne — was the first major awards ceremony to be held without any restrictions since the U.K. finally emerged from its lockdown in July. And the room was filled with unusually unjaded executives; with most people still working from home, this was the first time many teams had seen each other in person for 18 long months.
It also represented the return of live music for many, and this year’s Mercury show, after last year’s virtual event, served up a suitably eclectic mix. The show featured live performances from 10 of the 12 nominees, with only ambient jazz collective Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra, nominated for “Promises,” and mysterious R&B/house project Sault, up for “Untitled (Rise),” sitting it out.
The live appearances officially play no part in determining the winner, although it’s hard to imagine no one was swayed by the promise of hearing Parks’ breezy, brassy take on “Too Good,” which closed the show. The soulful singer-songwriter has already proved one of 2021’s slow-burn independent successes, winning a Brit Award for breakthrough artist and passing 40,000 sales for the highly acclaimed “Collapsed in Sunbeams.” She’s had few opportunities to play the album live so far, but she still successfully brought a taste of festival season indoors.
Earlier in the evening, previous Mercury winners Wolf Alice kicked things off with a strident version of “Smile,” from the No. 1 album “Blue Weekend.” They even convened an indie supergroup of sorts for the occasion, with Izzy Baxter Phillips from Black Honey featuring on backing vocals, which only added to the song’s effervescent charm.
The Mercury Prize didn’t exist in the 1980s (it only debuted in 1992, when Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica” won the day), but if it had, Laura Mvula would have walked it for her performance of “Church Girl,” taken from her “Pink Noise” album. Sporting a keytar and some fearsome shoulder pads, her performance channeled pure electro-funk and will surely maintain her recent career renaissance.
Celeste, meanwhile, has the biggest-selling album so far on the list, with “Not Your Muse” already boasting a silver disc and almost 62,000 sales. You could see why, as well: the lights dropped for her smoky rendition of “Strange” which, despite only being backed by a string quartet and piano, was the only song all night that managed to truly silence the industry chatter.
Not everyone had quite the same impact. Hannah Peel staged her own electronic mini-rave in the corner of the stage for “Emergence in Nature,” taken from “Fir Wave,” but struggled to get the crowd dancing.
And, although post-rock veterans Mogwai’s “Ritchie Sacramento” was introduced as “the one conventional pop song” on its first-ever No. 1 album, “As the Love Continues,” you suspect Dua Lipa won’t be losing too much sleep over its hazy shoegaze noise, excellent though it was.
Similarly, Nubya Garcia’s “Pace,” taken from her “Source” record, pleased the jazz heads but made little attempt to court mainstream viewers with its fiery sax and complex rhythms. And you suspect Black Country, New Road’s Arcade Fire-esque indie-rock on “Track X,” from “For the First Time,” may have turned fewer heads than frontman Isaac Wood’s decision to wear a snorkel for its performance.
Others pulled out all the stops. Berwyn’s elegantly delivered combination of rap and soul on “Glory,” from his debut “Demo Tape/Vega,” sat at a piano, proved mesmerizing. And Ghetts arrived clad in padded rainwear and holding an umbrella, probably the one man not caught out by London’s sudden transformation from high summer to mid-fall, and his music was similarly prescient. “Fine Line,” a highlight of his “Conflict of Interest” album, featured strings and a choir, but it was Ghetts’ carefully considered bars that hit hardest.
Some of those performances were eye-catching enough for rumors to spread through the room that a surprise winner was on the cards. In the end though, the Mercury played against type and went with the frontrunner.
Attention will now turn to whether Parks’ “Collapsed in Sunbeams” will see a renewed surge in interest. In its early years, a Mercury nomination alone was usually enough to boost sales. As the market has shifted away from sales to streaming, however, such shortlist spikes have dissipated, but a winning album can still see a significant boost. Last year’s winner, Michael Kiwanuka’s “Kiwanuka,” has gone on to sell over 125,000 copies in the U.K., according to the Official Charts Company, with over 50,000 of those sales coming since his win.
Parks has a fair way to go before she reaches such heights, while Transgressive and Beatnik are also planning a U.S. push. For now, though, she can bank the £25,000 ($35,400) prize money and bask in the light of being the soundtrack for the U.K. music business’ big comeback party.
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