The Mercury Prize hasn’t favoured Irish acts before, but this year might be different
Dublin’s Fontaines DC make shortlist dominated by jittery, outspoken music
Fontaines DC performing in Manchester. Photograph: Visionhaus/Getty Images
Anger, angst and the importance of political engagement are among the themes touched upon by this year’s Mercury Music Prize shortlist for best Irish or British album. Dublin’s Fontaines DC are among the jittery and outspoken artists shortlisted, alongside post-punks Idles and forthright rappers Slowthai and Dave. Guitars are to the fore too, with Fontaines’ aggressively minimalist post-punk helping set the tone for one of the most confrontational Mercurys in years.
Their nomination, for debut Dogrel, is not considered a shock, given one bookmaker had listed them as 16/1 to win the prize before the 12 acts had been announced. The record has been (more or less) universally lauded in Ireland and, even allowing for the tendency to wildly overpraise Irish music, is a striking calling card. It was a proper hit, as well, peaking at four in the charts. It’s gone down well in the UK also, reaching number nine. That’s impressive, given Dogrel’s thematic preoccupation with Dublin and the city’s future at a time of escalating rents and rampant gentrification.
Will Fontaines DC – none of whom are actually from Dublin city proper – triumph at the live ceremony on September 19th? The odds are against them, if only because Irish bands often seem to arrive on the Mercury list with a whiff of tokenism. The last Irish artists nominated were Soak and Róisín Murphy in 2015, and before that Villagers in 2013. In neither year were they felt to have a realistic chance of bringing home the gong.
Dogrel is different in that it’s among the more urgent and dynamic albums on the 2019 shortlist. Brendan Behan, Joy Division, Fugazi and Luke Kelly-vintage Dubliners are among the influences. Speaking ahead of Dogrel’s release the group were clear the LP was, among other things, their attempt to interrogate their relationship with the capital.
“I was setting up a breakfast buffet every morning,” frontman Grian Chatten told me, recalling his previous employment at a hotel in the city. “Up at 4.30 am to set up breakfast for the rich of Dublin while working a minimum-wage job,” said Chatten, who sings in his natural Skerries, Co Dublin accent. “And I’d have to smile through it. It was at that time I had no gaff. The rich were getting richer and I was sleeping on people’s couches.”
Meat-and-veg punk rock
The other Irish representatives on the shortlist are Idles in the form of Belfast guitarist Mark Bowen. Their Joy as an Act of Resistance is more explicitly political than Dogrel, with toxic masculinity and Brexit Britain among the subjects in its sights. Musically, it’s less adventurous than Fontaines DC. This is meat-and-veg punk rock updated for Generation Woke. But as the UK alternately celebrates and shudders at the sight of Boris Johnson in Number 10, its stridency may carry the day.
Nothing Great About Britain, by Northampton rapper Slowthai, similarly deals in state-of-the-nation introspection. The challenge of being a good person in an overwhelming world is meanwhile explored by Streatham rhymer Dave, whose Psychodrama delves into issues such as mental health and self-esteem. As if that wasn’t enough, the 1975’s A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships is a sprawling rumination on how the internet has reshaped our sense of self. The tunes shimmer but thematically it dredges deep.
This is a good Mercury shortlist in so far as it aspires to more than merely take the temperature of Irish and British music. Arguably the award has slightly lost its way, lauding agreeable yet essentially insignificant acts. An example is last year’s winner’s Wolf Alice, an engaging indie outfit but one about whom it is difficult to have strong feelings.
That isn’t at all the case with with Fontaines DC, Idles, etc. Whether or not the Irish band win, they are at home in a shortlist that says something about the state of pop but a lot more about the condition of the world today. Now, more than ever, that is entirely as it should be.
The list in full:
Anna Calvi: Hunter
Black Midi: Schlagenheim
Cate Le Bon: Reward
Foals: Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost
Fontaines DC: Dogrel
Idles: Joy as an Act of Resistance
Little Simz: Grey Area
SEED Ensemble: Driftglass
Slowthai: Nothing Great About Britain
The 1975: A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships