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Mercury Prize 2012: Welcome to alt-J's Shimmering Future

Mercury? More like bloody mercurial, mate.

Five years ago, Klaxons collapsed into a melted pool of substance issues on the Mercury stage. They wept. They laughed. Their back molars ground uncomfortably downwards even as their eyes rolled increasingly upwards in their delightfully exploded head-spaces. As they astral-travelled through space-time in the bowels of a London hotel, it was, incredibly, only 18 months since Jamie Reynolds had sat in his bedroom with his Bill Drummond book, gradually piecing together the DNA of pop. Now, they had won the whole of music, and this was their celebration screen.

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Five years later, we are living in the future. What was 2012 in music? It was not the holocaust of laser eyes and digi-pocalypse that Klaxons had predicted. It was a year where Michael Kiwanuka could do his duck in a microwave act and become Bill Withers. It was a year where Jessie Ware could crate-dig into Club Classics Vol One to find something fresh in the least fashionable classic British record of the past 30 years. It was a year where Richard Hawley could yet again sigh and croon in his Richard Hawley way and make everyone feel that a special cove of their heart was reserved for him, even though they'd long since ceased to buy his records. And it was the year that alt-J showed the word that it is possible for four brains on sticks to write off-kilter pop songs about triangles with meaningless hidden meanings and succeed.

When the big book of the 2010s is written, this year we have all been put through will be remembered as the one in which a bunch of guys who looked like they’d just completed their first internships at merchant bankers took to the stage to proclaim that, having just won Britain’s most prestigious music prize, they were now in a position to pay off their student loans. The shimmering Ballardian kismet of sex, death, drugs and technology that Klaxons had planned for us has not materialised. Instead, we must now contemplate alt-J’s future: one filled with endless phone advert soundtrack offers and an air of professional humility matched only by posh cuckolds and Oxbridge rowing captains.

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Gus Unger-Hamilton. Joe Newman. Gwil Sainsbury. Tom Wegger-Prosser. Up they stood to grasp Lauren Laverne respectfully and thank their parents for not making them get proper jobs. Even though, lord knows, the sorts of management fast-track options open to them must be vast. Especially with their connections – within five years, Unger-Hamilton could have been auditing all kinds of things. But he gave it all up for the love of music. That's touching.

Though it has to be said, alt-J didn't exactly show much of the initiative that potential employers might be after. Installed as favourites two months prior to the event, on the night, they stumbled through a non-speech, claiming that they “really hadn't thought they were going to win”. Was this act of cliché bingo statistically valid? Of course not. What sort of workshy bozo doesn't bother to have half a dozen words at the back of their minds if they're already everyone's number one picks? If whoever owns the rights to their music has any sense – and it wouldn't be too surprising if it was the President of Polydor, given that he's Unger-Hamilton's uncle – they’ll pack them off to charm school at the label’s expense, the folktronica equivalent of an aspiring starlet putting a tit job on the company credit card.

No doubt, in their own unique way, alt-J celebrated late into the evening. By midnight, a hopelessly drunk Wegger-Prosser had probably raided eBay for a collection of pewter gravy boats shaped like tiny baths. Two hours later, and Sainsbury was still to be found locked in intense conversation about whether Agas are actually more efficient than modern cookers. Joe Newman probably got his boast on and wandered around for hours, telling people that his album was "quite good" and that he "even listened to it himself sometimes", and then there's Unger-Hamilton, rolling in screaming at 4AM after an excellent night of huffing snus and playing strip whist with women who look like Tilda Swinton.

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You can't help but feel though that somewhere along the line, something's been lost. It seems that for the last five years, the Mumfords and White Lies of this world have been subtly recalibrating our expectations of when it is appropriate for musicians to form drug-induced human pyramids in front of a global press gallery.

These aren't the cute, nerdy outliers any more. These guys are the new normal.

Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes

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