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.
Elizabeth Aubrey on Loyle Carner's Yesterday's Gone.
Okay, confession time. I’m a massive loser who is incredibly late to the Loyle Carner listening party. Everyone I know with exceptional music taste has told me to listen to his debut album Yesterday's Gone, and I still haven’t. I repeat: I’m a massive loser.
I have, like most people in music with an opinion, mixed feelings about the Mercury’s and I do so every year. As always, the shortlist announcement last week split, divided, angered, and humoured. Some of the very best, critically acclaimed artists can’t even afford to enter, some of the most annoying albums of the year, backed with megabucks, somehow always make the shortlist. Cue industry/fan/journalism debate.
Yet love or loathe the Mercury’s, the one thing they’re brilliant at is encouraging a dialogue about music and bringing music people might not have necessarily heard into the public consciousness. Would I have gotten round to listening to Loyle Carner without the Mercury’s? I’d like to think so, but I can’t be sure. Despite my mixed feelings, The Mercury’s have at least made me switch off Game Of Thrones and listen to the album I’ve meaning to for ages.
To the listening party* I go.
*Not an actual party, just me in my room with a Strawberry and Lime flavoured cider.
’The Isle of Arran’
I jump out of my skin as I hear a cough and think there’s someone else in the room. It turns out it’s just Carner clearing his throat. Phew. The gospel choir kicks in and then...um, wow. This is quite astonishing. The backing gospel track is ‘It’s All On Me’ from Dr Dre’s Compton (I think) but here it’s used in a completely different way – a nod to a great forefather of rap but also a statement of intent: I know what’s gone before and I love it but I’m planning on doing things in my own – and very unique – way. I like this a lot and decide to play it again.
Okay – I played it five times because IT’S THAT GOOD.
Having to remind myself that this is an opening track – on other albums, it might well be the closer, the climax, the raison d'être but no – Carner is just warming up. If this is the quality of the opener, I can’t actually wait for the rest. “My mother said there’s no love until you show some / So I showed love and got think, now there’s no one.” Blimey. “I wonder why my dad didn’t want me / Ex didn’t need me.” I want to hug him. His name is Loyle Carner and he has arrived, aplomb. Why on earth didn’t I switch Game Of Thrones off earlier?
‘Mean It In The Morning’
Change of pace as we enter into a melancholy love song with bitter sweet jazzy guitar chords. Feels quite lounge-like in places but the lyrics give is such a brutal emotional honesty that the sounds in the background almost becomes irrelevant. It ends abruptly and then we get…
…wow! A spoken word interlude with subtle tempest-like sounds in the background. It literally stops you in your tracks because it (a) comes from nowhere and (b) is so lyrically delicious. A full-on hurricane force of a poem – a street-based Shakespearean-like love confessional that has all the power of Prospero commanding a storm but on a street in Croydon as opposed to a beach in a far-away land.
It’s a poem about sending a regretful text but manages to be both uniquely personal and yet universally apt. “A sugar-soaked sentiment for sceptics / Then start to giggle as the ridicule reflects this / Stress, second guess, now you wish you didn’t send this / ’Cause you don’t mean what you said in that text / And you don’t mean what you’ll be telling her next…” Carner knows his sibilance and he isn’t afraid to use it.
‘Damselfly’ (feat Tom Misch)
It’s been a while since I’ve been this excited by an album. Let’s hope it continues…here goes.
This one is a little more upbeat with subtle jazzy guitar strings and combines Carner’s spoken word with Misch’s vocals. My phone pings and I’m interrupted…oh no wait that’s Carner’s. Ohhh – he gets a text from a mate and is gutted when it isn’t from a girl. Like the other tracks, it’s very short - definitely a less is more mantra – but that somehow gives them a much more powerful punch.
'Ain't Nothing Changed’
I feel like the trumpeted jazz opening to this means I’m about to have a film noir experience. “Kind of miss my student loan / Uh, I miss sitting in the student home,” Carner sings at the start. I certainly don’t miss the loan, but I hear you about those student days, my friend. I still miss skiving afternoon lectures to eat noodles and watch Diagnosis Murder . I digress: back to the song.
Okay – this feels like a big hitter on the album, one of the standout masterpieces. I need to hear the rest of the album to judge that but this feels Blakean, Songs of Experience-like in sentiment and in style. It’s a song about having to grow up too quickly when responsibilities are thrust upon you in this time of austerity. I imagine Corbyn knows all the lines already. “This inner city responsibility’s killing me / I start to shiver when I think of the shit I need…I should have quit but couldn’t fucking resist.”
Grime and youth and left wing politics are going hand in hand for a reason right now and this song is one of many that helps to explain why that is. Young people have been entirely screwed over by this clusterfuck of an excuse of a government and grime is one of the few musical genres having the guts to expose it for what it is. I love how this song manages to be political but also very deeply personal to Carner himself – like all the great writers and musicians, we empathise with him, we get it, we understand. I also love how it’s not drawn out and gets to the point. It’s a bit like each song is a tiny vignette, a window into society and into the soul.
His mum is on this track! I love how he includes a little conversation with his mum about swearing. Not many would have the confidence to do that on a debut album.
‘Florence (feat Kwes)'
Oh gawwwwwwd. This is so stunning. Carner imagines what it would be like if he had a little sister and it’s just the most beautifully emotive song backed with a melancholy piano and minimal bass. “She could be my little freckled-face fidgeter, me but miniature / Sleeping on the sofa ‘till she tackles and I tickle her, the whisperer / I could be your listener, telling me your stories.” All the heart emoji’s.
‘The Seamstress (Tooting Masala)'
Like a lot of the songs so far, this situates itself in the everyday, in the humdrum (helped by the spoken word at the end of the song – the snippets of life), but again manages to make a bigger statement. Carner is so lyrically dexterous. I start to read up a bit on him now as I listen a few times to this song – not surprised that he toured with Kate Tempest. The two are very different in terms of style but eerily similar in terms of their lyrical and poetic prowess. Over half way now and I don’t feel like I’ve heard a single weak song as yet – everything feels quite perfectly judged.
‘Stars and Shards’
Lovely guitar opening, a bit funkier. This is all about a local domestic drug-dealing incident. It’s less Breaking Bad and more The Wire – grubby rather than glamorous, Bubbles rather than Crystal Blue. There’s a real feeling of hopelessness in Carner’s voice, of ‘what’s-the-point?’ rather than the drama you often get associated with songs of the same topic. I really like the juxtaposition between the bleakness of the subject and the jolty jazz guitars in this song.
‘No Worries (feat Rebel Kleff and Jhest)'
Low-fi open with what sounds like Tom Waits’ drunken piano. Teaming up here with Rebel Cleft and Jehst, this is a personal song about struggling to make ends meet but again managing to be a macrocosm into the political. It exposes the difficulties of being young at a time when the UK government appears to be doing very little – well fuck all actually – to help young people.
Education cuts, tuition fees, zero hour contracts, unpaid internships – it all feels prevalent in this tale of financial difficulty with the “people overlooking” but not really doing anything to help. “We ain’t in a rush but we steady pacing / Chasing payments is a blatant but we’re staying patient / Pumping product from this basement trying to make a statement / But ain’t nothing changed when I check my statement / Remain determined ‘cause the work is being put in…but still living hand-to-mouth / Thought I had it figured out, what a setback / That time is money that I’ll never get back.” Sound familiar? That’s because it is a situation many young people find themselves in right now the UK.
A little conversation again. I really like the snippets of spoken word included throughout – somehow makes all the art grounded in a constant reality.
‘No CD (feat Rebel Clef)'
A song about spending all your money on music. Nice nod to all his musical influences here. Weird little guitar riff in the middle that reminds me of Electric 6 and doesn’t feel all that well placed. Not overly enamoured with this one if I’m being honest but let’s face it, everything else has been bloody brilliant so far.
Such an emotive song, written for a friend whose mum was suffering from cancer. Powerful lyrics juxtaposed against a subtle piano give it more of an emotional urgency. One thing I really love about this whole album is how the egotism found on so much rap is just non-existent here. It’s sensitive and so beautifully open – souls not so much bared as exposed, arteries and sinews an all. Stream-of-consciousness narratives, stories of love, life, death, despair, helplessness – nothing is off limits. It’s even more impressive that Carner is just 22 years old.
‘Sun Of Jean (feat Mum and Dad)'
Well, I’m not going to lie – this one has me in tears. Lots and lots of tears. Featuring piano from his late father and spoken word from his mum, it is utterly exquisite. I love the harps alongside the powerful imagery of Carner’s words. And I bloody love the fact he puts his mum on the song – she reads a poem about him and...oh my god – she even calls him her ‘proper Mowgli.’ Just when I thought the album couldn’t get any better it also has a bloody Jungle Book reference. The poem his mum reads is just so beautiful. Just give this album all the awards – ALL THE AWARDS. And give his mum an award. Oh man: I need a moment.
‘ Yesterday’s Gone’
Okay I’ve stopped crying. Let’s play the final track.
Oh, okay, this is different – a little folk ditty. Wasn’t expecting this. I feel like I’ve gone from Croydon to Woodstock. What does it matter? I’ve made my mind up – this album is utterly brilliant and should win all the awards. I’m annoyed it’s taken me so long to get around to listening to this album but I am so very glad I finally did. Reviewing it on its own, this would be a clear 10 for me. And I hate to say it, but the Mercury Music’s mantra of wanting to “recognise and celebrate artistic achievement” and “to help introduce new albums from a range of music genres to a wider audience” – well, they’ve certainly done that for me.
Right, I’m off to listen to it all over again. And book tickets for his autumn tour.
For more information about Loyle Carner, please visit his official website.