On Tuesday evening The xx were named as winners of the 2010 Mercury music prize. This was one of the more predictable outcomes in the award’s 18-year history. The Putney three-piece, which I profiled for this autumn issue, had been the bookmakers’ favourite since the nominations were announced in July—until Monday, when a rush of bets on Paul Weller pushed them into second place. But few really doubted that they deserved to win.
The Mercury prize was devised as an alternative to the Brit Awards, which fetes commercial success. It aims to bring mainstream attention to an artistically outstanding album. But the prize has frequently faced criticism for its choices, giving rise to the notion of a "Mercury curse". Last year’s winner, Speech Debelle, sold only 15,000 copies of her album, "Speech Therapy", and quickly fell out with her record label in the aftermath.
The judges, who make their final choice just moments before the winner is announced, would have had last year’s debacle in mind as they came to the table. Their decision to celebrate an album that has already received universal acclaim is undoubtedly a safe one. Already The xx are seeing a boost in sales of "XX", which has topped this week’s Amazon and iTunes sales charts and looks set to breach the top-ten in the official charts.
The Mercury judges have secured their own reputation for another cycle. They also round off an incredible year for The xx, who released the winning album in August 2009. It has sold around 200,000 copies in Britain so far. If the award does for them what it did for 2008 winners Elbow, who reportedly saw their album sales increase by 700%, this could cement the band’s transition into the mainstream and turn the pressure up considerably as they come to write another record.
Still, The xx are showing signs of warming to success. At the ceremony on Thursday they appeared sleeker than ever, the scruffy black uniform of their early gigs replaced with sharp tailoring and well-oiled hair. Though reticence still characterises their approach to the press, Oliver Sim seems increasingly comfortable in his role of spokesman, professing that winning the award was “a weird moment of clarity” for the band.
They have suggested that they might spend the £20,000 prize money on building their own studio. To find refuge from the hype as they come to write their second album, they might well need one.
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