Last week, the shortlist for the 2017 Mercury Music Prize was revealed. As part of the prize's remit is to "recognise and celebrate artistic achievement...and to help introduce new albums from a range of music genres to a wider audience", we thought it would be interesting to get our writers to "live review" a nominated record they had yet to listen to, noting down their thoughts in real time. The Mercury First Listen Reviews are the result.
Max Pilley on Glass Animals’ How To Be A Human Being.
My reaction to the Mercury shortlist this year can be summarised in one word: Meh. Sure, there are records on there that I like (The Big Moon, Loyle Carner, Kate Tempest), but a number of them I find pale and underwhelming. This is in part due, however, to an unforgivable reflex on my part in relation to Glass Animals, a band with whom I am broadly unfamiliar, but one I have dismissed on a subconscious level as not one I need to worry too much about. I know I’ve heard them played on the radio many times, but would struggle to name a track. For a music writer, that’s just not good enough, so this opportunity to listen to their second album with a completely open mind is welcome. Maybe over the next 43 minutes and 16 seconds, I can nudge that ‘meh’ up to a ‘hey, not a bad list’.
And we’re off, with a flurry of harp strings, as if plummeting into our protagonist’s dream. Some tribal drum patterns and warped, digitally distorted samples. This is, frankly, much better than I expected. No time to look up the lyrics, but I’m pretty sure he just said “Thought I was Camden’s own Flash Gordon”, which has endeared me. The chorus is the least interesting part here, drowning out the intriguing track that underpins it. Certainly catchy, though. I’m guessing this was a single.
The energy has dropped slightly, but there are still drops of surprising rhythmic loops drizzled all through this. Our singer is addressing a boy, perhaps from a parent’s point of view, or perhaps in conversation with his younger self. It is bittersweet: nostalgic and mournful at the same time. On further inspection, there may be a tragedy at the centre of this track.
‘Season 2 Episode 3’
Dumb song title. The opening part is based on a bed of “Hey’s”, before giving way to some 80s computer game electro bloops. It’s not going to be one of those ironic “weren’t the old days shit, it’s so much fun to replicate it now” type of songs, is it? He’s talking about his girl eating mayonnaise from a jar and watching old cartoons. The chorus comes in on a wave of smooth, 80s sub-Prince funk. It just about works, and I know a lot of people would love this, it just strays a little too much into a wackiness zone that just isn’t for me.
The idea of pork soda is Grade A repulsive, but that probably makes it a good title. We begin on a US street at night, half-overhearing a conversation that we’re not part of, for a good 30 seconds before we get going. “Somewhere in Southend / When you were fun” is a great opening line. Oof, this is sweary. Edgy. This is actually my favourite one, with the big dopey beats and nonsense lyrics. Huge, propulsive energy, and a lot of talk about having pineapples in your head. I love this.
Back to the harps. Now we are in a subdued mood for the first time, finger clicks and, maybe triangles?! “In the summer, took the gun / And made him go to Neverland”. Ok, this just got a lot more serious. “In the summer silence / I was getting violent”. Without the opportunity to listen repeatedly or do any research, it’s hard to get under the skin of a song’s meaning, but there is clearly something important being expressed here, I assume on the subject of mental health. There’s a break with a verse that calls to mind Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, of all things. Musically, it is a slow builder, a mature, intricately built track with a haunting woodwind part that gives the whole thing a touch of menace. Good stuff.
Is that a drug reference? I’ll never know. Big boom-bap drum beat on this one. We’re half way through now, and the defining feature is the sharp, crisp production throughout the album. None of them have a live band dynamic, but a hermetically sealed, meticulously pored-over polish. It works for them, each track is distinct, and in only six songs, there have already been countless mood changes.
Blimey, 35 seconds, there’s no time to write anything! This is ‘Fitter Happier’ but for fast food.
‘The Other Side Of Paradise’
Biggest track so far – huge production scope, a sky-filler. It’s glossier than anything else so far, custom-made for neon-lit stage backdrops. But that’s not to say it’s simple, anything but. There are still the (trademark?) spurts of unexpected processed sounds cropping up all over the shop, my favourite of which here are the occasional deep dog-woof-like bursts in the left channel. This is fun.
‘Take A Slice’
Once again, we open with an unannounced, unlabelled conversation, before the song truly begins. There will be a good reason for this, but no time to find out what it is. This is torture! Oh ok, this is the sordid one. Our singer certainly embodies a different personality with each song. “I’m filthy and I love it” is probably the most representative lyric here. Even the production is dripping with sleaze. Not the most memorable song.
A rare distinguishable guitar! This seems to be a more confessional insight into the singer than previously heard on this album, but that could be a trick. It’s more straightforward anyway, a more conventional indie rock number. Oh, eventually it ties itself up with synthesised trickery and flourishes, more akin to what has come before, but downplayed this time. This felt like an outlier.
We’re at the end already! Gosh that was quick. It has only just occurred to me that there are eleven songs here and eleven people on the cover art. D’oh. If I’d have had this breakthrough earlier I could have had fun figuring out which one we were on each time. No wonder I thought the singer had different personalities on each song! The vocals are melancholic on this one, and for Glass Animals the music is too (they never sound too maudlin though). A solitary piano line is mixed with a wash of synths and swooshes, whilst the mantra is “You’re gone but you’re on my mind / I’m lost but I don’t know why”. It rouses itself into a big finish, but it is a strangely downbeat climax. Quite affecting, actually.
That was actually quite a challenge. I certainly enjoyed the record a lot, and will be listening to it more over the next week to unpack more of its charms. If you’ve been making the same mistake that I have, don’t sleep on Glass Animals any longer. On first listen, it feels like it can hold its own on this Mercury shortlist quite easily.
For more information on Glass Animals, please visit their offical website.