With his compelling back story as a youth spent living homeless in Paris, a highly idiosyncratic compositional style, and above all, his astonishing, multi-octave voice, Benjamin Clementine is one of the most singular musical talents to emerge in Britain this century. His debut album At Least For Now, released in 2015, was a dizzyingly original, frequently beautiful collection of piano-led songs covering everything from loneliness and nostalgia to eating tea and croissants and reworking the speeches of Winston Churchill. Despite receiving some criticism for being over-egged – as well as endless comparisons to Nina Simone, Anohni and Rufus Wainwright to name but three stellar influences – it nevertheless went on to earn Clementine a richly deserved Mercury Music Prize.
Two and a half years on, Clementine has re-emerged with At Least For Now’s follow-up, the intriguingly titled I Tell A Fly. Anyone who believed the Londoner would aim to capitalise upon his Mercury success by relaxing into a more commercial, radio-friendly style is in for a rude awakening. Clementine’s second record is even more beguilingly strange than his first, eschewing conventional song structures throughout to deliver an endlessly shifting, occasionally disorientating whirlwind of sounds and tempos that never allows the listener to settle.
The musical reference points that combined on his debut – impressionist composers such as Satie and Debussy; the aforementioned Simone, Anohni and Wainwright; Kate Bush’s juxtaposition of fragile melody and restless experimentation – remain in place on I Tell A Fly. Yet this time Clementine goes further, almost completely forgoing the verses and choruses that were mostly present on At Least For Now. Instead, slivers of tune burst out, hover briefly and then disappear; that voice – capable of both staggering power and stark vulnerability – spends even more time lurching between theatrical flourishes and discordant obfuscation. Lyrically too, we are introduced to cast of characters in a state of troubled confusion (not least, one suspects, Clementine himself) – residents of the Calais jungle and Aleppo, migrants off the coast of Sicily and bullied children everywhere – a theme apparently inspired by a US entry visa form’s use of the term ‘an alien of extraordinary abilities’.
Not exactly an easy listening record then, yet I Tell A Fly is still offers a rewarding experience to those willing to pay it their complete attention. Farewell Sonata starts off as a relatively low-key beginning with its tastefully pretty piano, but a second half interlude of madcap, distorted vocals is a sign of what’s to come. Second track God Save The Jungle sees Clementine really start to cut loose. A sinister, unsettling examination of the Calais jungle characterised by soaring, chanted vocals and jerky harpsichord, it closes with Clementine singing the song’s title to the tune of God Save The Queen; an ironic reference, it seems likely, to a perceived sense of hostility from the promised land many jungle inhabitants dream of reaching.
Weirder still is the six-minute Phantom of Aleppoville, which starts off merging marching band percussion and more harpsichord with multi-tracked, histrionic snippets of Clementine’s voice before easing down into a graceful, calm piano ballad. It’s all (no doubt intentionally) rather nightmarish, yet one has to admire the boldness of its creator’s vision. There are a few tracks where the wilful eccentricity is reined in a little. Jupiter is (comparatively) straightforward soulful pop, while By The Ports of Europe has the album’s most engaging melody, which lilts along beautifully.
By and large though, this challenging, multi-layered record requires complete and sustained immersion to properly appreciate its full range of ideas and textures. It’s unlikely to make Clementine the chart topper or household name you feel he could potentially be, but I Tell A Fly is that rare thing; the work of a true original who values artistic expression above all else.