What was it that one might have overheard, had one walked past the grand-jury deliberating room at the Polaris Prize gala in Toronto Monday evening? The sound of 11 music journalists trying to talk each other out of the mundane inevitable, which was that Arcade Fire had released the finest Canadian album of the year. Ultimately that was the decision reached, in a vote that was less a contest than it was a coronation. The Suburbs – a bold, quasi-conceptual rumination on suburban youth from the rousing Montreal rockestra – won deservedly, likely handily.
Handily, only if we’re being honest. And some of us were. Mingling at the sixth annual gala that awards a $30,000 prize to the year’s best record (as selected by a yearly rotating hand-picked jury), is akin to attending a thoroughbred track – “Who do you like,” that kind of thing. Well, The Suburbs was Secretariat, there was no Man o’ War in sight, and if Seabiscuit was the melodist Ron Sexsmith, the race was no race at all. It was, as co-host Grant Lawrence of CBC Radio 3 put it, Arcade Fire and nine dark horses.
A friend of mine, a drummer, figured that the mysterious R&B project The Weeknd would win, not necessarily on merit, but because the album ( House of Balloons) had a story to it. The Weeknd is the stage name of Abel Tesfaye, a Toronto-based, Drake-approved, Ethiopian-Canadian who gave his record away for free. Journalists as voters might be expected to punch chads that are provocative, not predictable. Releases by U.S-based superstars Drake and Neil Young, for example, were overlooked this year, not even making it to the 10-album short list.
But for the big prize, the giant couldn’t be shoved to the corner. The Suburbs had already earned Arcade Fire a Juno, a Grammy and a Brit Award. Now with the Polaris, the band’s slam is grand, an endorsement as near to universal as you can have.
At a post-gala press conference, Arcade Fire mastermind Win Butler said he hadn’t expected to win. This was polite modesty. As CBC Radio’s Jian Ghomeshi tweeted, accurately: “Interesting tension in room of indie types predisposed to supporting unknowns/underdogs but knowing Arcade Fire deserve it.”
So Polaris’s excitement this year was thin, good for that. During the proceedings, Butler said something to the effect that just because you’ve heard of a band before, it “doesn’t mean they suck.” Polaris, who had previously given oversized novelty cheques to dorm-room darlings such as Final Fantasy and Caribou and fringe acts Karkwa and Fucked Up, apparently, possibly reluctantly, no longer argues that point. The stipulated qualification of the voters’ sincerity – to recognize musical achievement based “solely on artistic merit” – rings truer than ever.