Collapsed Sunbeams by Arlo Parks Wins Mercury Prize 2021

Posted by Mike Schumacher

Arlo Parks’ first album Collapsed in Sunbeams has received the Mercury Prize for 2021, which is given to the best British music of the year.

“We chose an artist with a singular voice who uses lyrics of remarkable beauty to confront complex themes of mental health and sexuality, and connects deeply with her generation as she does so,” judge Annie MacManus said as she presented the prize at the event in London on Thursday night.

Parks, 21, expressed her gratitude to her family and teammates, adding, “It took a lot of sacrifice and hard work to get here, and there were moments where I wasn’t sure I’d make it, so thank you very much.” She is the winner of £25,000.

The singer-songwriter is of West African and French descent and was born in London. In pithy and evocative character portraits, her album’s personal and highly empathetic songcraft tackles melancholy (Black Dog, Hope), queer sexuality (Green Eyes, Eugene), and relationship difficulty throughout. In 2020, she told the Guardian, “That sense of rawness is what people are gravitating to.” “I’ve had so many different kinds of conversations – it’s opened my heart, which is helpful when I’m writing songs.”

When Collapsed in Sunbeams was published in January, it debuted at No. 3 in the UK charts, earning Parks the British breakthrough prize at this year’s Brit awards.

She joins previous early-20s winners such as Arctic Monkeys, Dave, and Ms Dynamite as one of the prize’s youngest ever winners, but Dizzee Rascal, who was 19 when he won for Boy in Da Corner in 2003, remains the youngest ever.

Ten of the 12 nominees were making their first appearance on the shortlist, ranging from the klezmer-meets-post-punk of septet Black Country, New Road – whose frontman Isaac Wood performed at the ceremony wearing a snorkel – to electronic composer Hannah Peel’s clicks, pulsations, and cosmic chords, and Celeste, Arlo Parks, and Sault’s idiosyncratic takes on neo-soul. Over half of the candidates were Black British, with Ghetts’ atmospheric bildungsroman rap album Conflict of Interest and Nubya Garcia’s joyful, polyrhythmic jazz journey Source, capped by her own stirringly free saxophone lines, among the other first-time nominations.

After ten studio albums and seven soundtrack recordings, the Scottish post-rock band Mogwai received their first nomination, concluding a year in which their album As the Love Continues became their first UK chart-topper. Laura Mvula earned her third nomination for the 80s-inspired R&B of Pink Noise, which she performed at the event with a magnificent pink keytar — only Laura Marling and Radiohead have received more nominations without winning.

Following the contentious exclusion of Japanese-British pop singer Rina Sawayama from the 2020 shortlist, the rules were changed to allow musicians who had resided in the UK for more than five years to compete. Berwyn, a Trinidadian rap and R&B artist who recorded his mixtape Demotape/Vega in a Romford bedsit, may be nominated in 2021 as a result of this. His mixtape “just came out of blood, sweat, and tears; out of the overwhelming need to get out of the situation” in his “absolute shithole” of an apartment, he told the Guardian. He delivered the most enthralling performance of the night, solo on piano, of the song Glory.

Pharoah Sanders, an 80-year-old American jazz artist who contributed wondrous saxophone and vocals to the ambient contemporary classical composition Promises, by UK producer Floating Points, with the London Symphony Orchestra also performing, snuck onto the shortlist as part of a larger ensemble and was also the oldest-ever nominee.

Wolf Alice, who won in 2018 with her second album Visions of a Life, was the sole previous winner on the shortlist. Blue Weekend, their Grammy-nominated album, debuted at No. 1 in June and has since gone on to become one of the year’s most highly praised albums.

The award was established in 1992 with the goal of “recognizing and celebrating artistic achievement, providing a snapshot of the year in music, and assisting in the introduction of new albums from a variety of music genres to a wider audience.”

The fact that the albums emerged out of a year dominated by the Covid-19 epidemic, the judges noted, was a “testament to the strength of British music.” Last year’s winner Michael Kiwanuka, 2020 candidates Lanterns on the Lake’s Hazel Wilde, jazz artist Jamie Cullum, and alt-popper Anna Calvi, as well as broadcasters, journalists, and music industry leaders, were on the judging panel.

Parks stated following her victory on BBC 6 Music, “I’m still coming off my little cloud – speechless for the time being, but very grateful.” “The storytelling, the honesty, and the humanity; and the fact that I was able to talk about things that were really important to me and affected me, in an honest way,” she remarked when asked what she was most pleased of on the album. She expressed a desire to keep using music “as a tool for personal healing.”

Thanks to Ben-Beaumont Thomas at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.

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