So Speech Debelle’s Speech Therapy won this year’s Mercury Prize and I’m a little upset because I was totally rooting for Florence + the Machine’s Lungs in a very enthusiastic, unhealthy way. Not in the same way I wanted Neon Neon’s Stainless Style to win last year, and that only because it was so cheerfully unexpected and out there (seriously? an album based on John DeLorean’s life?) in a way a concept album hasn’t been in so very long. I guess it’s an honor to be nominated at all, but isn’t that just something losers say?
But I really did want Florence + the Machine’s Lungs to take the prize, probably because it would selfishly confirm my own taste. Not since Kent’s Tillbaka till samtiden have I been so impressed with a recently released album. It’s easy to get caught up in old records that blow your mind; all summer I’ve been jamming to David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, coincidentally, also two concept albums (one loosely predicated on a rock n’ roll alien and the other on the world’s most exploited break-ups), but to be there when an album is released is a whole other beast entirely. It leaves records unsullied by decades of nostalgia and overrated hype that leads you to them with enormous expectations that can hardly break even with reality. It lets you create your own judgments on the spot without resorting to thinking about what the album means in the context that’s been pre-created by critics, friends, or sentimental baby boomers.
In Ryan Dombal’s review of Lungs on Pitchfork, he says that for vocalist Florence Welsh, “matters of the heart aren’t simple, everyday occurrences– they’re as grand and mysterious as the big bang itself”; I cannot think of a better way to describe this record.
The key to this album lies in the subtle, constant innuendos that Welch brings to life with a bluesy, soft voice that is anything but gentle. In fact, more often than not it’s the strength of all the juxtapositions that really brings to life the soaring harps and bombastic drums that play with all the aplomb of a ticker-tape parade, expressing the rises, falls, heartbeats, wounds, scarring, and occasional backstabbing that make this album so complex. Is the subject matter of “My Boy Builds Coffins” really building coffins, or collecting, then spitting out, hapless victims of love? Is she singing about a crush or spiritual ecstasy in “Drumming Song”? Is it a good or bad thing that love has turned her into a she-wolf in “Howl”? These questions are only half the fun of the record; the other half is the sheer pleasure that comes from exploring the intricate scenarios of these fairy tale songs. And although names like KT Tunstall and Kate Bush are being thrown around to nab the mystical aura of the album, the first one that comes to my mind is Stevie Nicks – the sweeping garments, the perpetual flashlight on love as seen through some of the more bizarre corners of the gothic, and of course, the dripping cynicism that betrays any semblance of a true love song without eluding to its partner: heartbreak (or maybe I’ve just been listening to too much Nicks lately).
It’s sometimes a bit jarring to hear the pure soul of the vocals on top of all those drums and guitars, but it works. Nowhere does the tone or direction of the album get confused or clash. It’s an all-around masterpiece, really, and though I’ve been playing it non-stop for the past few weeks, I still haven’t grown tired or bored with it the way I do with so many of the records that have topped my year end lists; overwhelmed by the first few listens, I slowed down to pick apart tracks and found something new with each spin.
So it lost out to Speech Therapy, which I heard and didn’t like, but then I’ve never really took to or understood rap so I’m probably missing something fundamental and that’s fine, she probably deserved to win. You’re never going to be fond of everything you hear. But when you do have that rare moment of discovery, everybody wins. And that’s all that really matters in the very personal, very relentless pursuit of that glorious, ultimate response to recorded music.