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Young Fathers – Dead

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The 2014 Mercury Music Prize has passed with another of the award’s famously unexpected decisions. After years in which acts like Elbow, Arctic Monkeys and the XX have all reflected previously-growing fanbases by scooping the gong, the decision to give the accolade to relative unknowns Young Fathers this year was seemingly a return to the quirky old days. Indeed the last time that the Mercury panel (who bizarrely included the relatively unproven – if talented – Lianne La Havas in their number this year) went this far off the beaten commercial track, the 2009 winner Speech Debelle was never heard of again.

If the same fate befalls this year’s winners though, there is a distinct feeling that the record-buying public are somewhat missing a trick. The fact that Young Fathers’ superb album Dead had previously sold a paltry 2,500 copies (which, as a friend pointed out, is little more than ‘friends of friends’ for some artists) grossly understates just how accessible the record actually is. Compared to more popular contenders like Royal Blood, whose album crashed straight into the charts at number 1, and the multi-platinum selling Damon Albarn, it is somewhat ironic that the Young Fathers album contains the most obvious pop hooks of the three.

Young Fathers show off the 2014 Mercury Music Prize

Young Fathers show off the 2014 Mercury Music Prize

That’s not to say that Dead is going to be filling dancefloors at this year’s office Christmas party, a lot of the album is more reflective of the dread-filled output of the mid-90’s Bristol scene than anything else, but some of the trio’s more euphoric harmonies almost (and they probably won’t thank me for saying this) seem to evoke parallels with One Direction.

These stylistic juxtapositions are clear from the off, as album opener No Way slides effortlessly from a grimy African-tinged rap intro into a distinctly pop-y chorus harmony of “AK-47 sent my brethren straight to heaven”.

There’s no doubt that this intriguing mix of styles and influences stems from the varied backgrounds of Young Fathers’ three members. While Graham Hastings (who also produced the album) hailed from the band’s native Edinburgh, his fellow rappers/singers – they all share these duties – are from further afield. Alloysious Massaquoi left his war-torn fatherland of Liberia for Scotland in the mid-90’s, while Scottish-born Kayus Bankole grew up in the US as well as Nigeria (where his parents hail from). These African roots are worn heavily on the band’s collective sleeves.

Another impressive feature of the band is the way in which all the members are equally gifted in both their ability to sing and rap, yet all in fairly unique ways (see closing track I’ve Arrived for evidence). Massaquoi’s vocal intro to second track Low has a tender beauty that lays a groundwork for Bankole’s relaxed rapping before the whole song crescendos into a 1D-ish series of drum beats and chanting.

It is this vocal versatility that makes Young Fathers so hard to define. If pushed for a lazy comparison, you could say the ghosts of Massive Attack and Tricky loom large, not least on the exceptional Hangman (below), which could have been lifted straight off Maximquaye or Blue Lines, combining as it does menacing beats and laid-back rapping with another of the band’s seemingly trademark tribal-ish vocal refrains. However several other parts of the album would ridicule any notion of the band being a new incarnation of those artists, for example the bouncy pop of Get Up owes more to the likes of Chase & Status.

Overridingly though, it does appear that the Mercury panel have got this one right. The shortlisted artists this year ranged (in the traditions of the award) from the shimmery indie of Bombay Bicycle Club, to the bleak pointelism of FKA Twigs, via a Polar Bear performance of such awful, abstract jazz that you half expected a wigged John Thompson to turn to the camera and say “Nice” halfway through.

Polar Bear... Nice

Polar Bear… Nice

While I think, as far as the public were concerned, the winner that would have raised the least eyebrows would have been Royal Blood, in this instance the purpose of the Mercury Music Prize has been personified in the winners. The award should strive to act as a launchpad for the deserving, to strike a balance between the esoteric and the popular. Too much in the direction of the latter and it almost seems a meaningless accolade in the artist’s trophy cabinet, while anything too random tends to be forgotten as soon as the ceremony ends.

This year, the decision was correct. Young Fathers are a deceptively accessible and talented group who have not thusfar received the prestige or established the fanbase that they deserve. One can only hope that, in winning this award, they manage to do so.

by Harry Harland

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