Album Review: Benjamin Clementine – I Tell a Fly

From the memorable cover of his latest album, I Tell a Fly – everything about Benjamin Clementine is striking and eye-catching. In it; we see the hero clasping a – what looks like – vinyl box with the projection of a compass on his face – it looks like a spiral with a small compass circling his eye. It is, perhaps, one of the finest album covers of the year so far.

This is not surprising when one hears the music of Clementine. He is a man who takes pride and care in everything. Clementine’s debut album, At Least for Now, was released in 2015 and won the Mercury Music Prize. If the creator was shocked by his win, astute media observers weren’t: the New York Times noted how (the record) was unlike anything in modern music. Even though he was born and raised in London: Clementine moved to Paris and became homeless as a teenager – he moved back to England and made an appearance on Later…with Jools Holland in 2013. Most modern artists (the vast majority, in fact) pass you by and do not carry that much wonder and legend, that is not true here.

Clementine is considered one of the most intelligent and astonishing songwriters of the day – a life and background that is destined for the cinema; a look and voice that will echo through the ages. The fact he has a Mercury-winning album under his belt – and a heap of critical love! – could lead to the ultimate ‘difficult second album’. Such is the cool and composure of Benjamin Clementine that not only is his second album a confident and composed – it surpasses and pushes on from his debut. Expect I Tell a Fly to be among the shortlisted Mercury Music Prize albums this time next year.

If At Least for Now was the sound of a young man looking backwards and inwards: I Tell a Fly is the pioneering songwriter addressing the world around him (and the problems people are burdened by). The album’s name derives from an experience Clementine had with his American visa: “…an alien of extraordinary abilities.” He explains, “I was baffled for about ten minutes when I first saw that visa. But then I thought to myself, I am an alien. I’m a wanderer. In most places I’ve been, I’ve always been different. And so I began to think about the story of a couple of birds, who are in love: one is afraid to go further, and the other is taking a risk, to see what happens.” ‘Farewell Sonata’ starts with a ghostly crescendo that finds Clementine’s voice floating and echoing in the background like a disembodied spirit – before a calming and beautiful piano coda washes away the storm. The sunshine and reflective beauty of the piece is

‘Farewell Sonata’ starts with a ghostly crescendo that finds Clementine’s voice floating and echoing in the background like a disembodied spirit – before a calming and beautiful piano coda washes away the storm. The sunshine and reflective beauty of the piece is a juxtaposition to the schizophrenia and harrowing nightmares of the infantile seconds. Delicate and classical: a sublime and sentient dance that engages all senses and projects myriad colours, visions and fantasies. As strong an album opener as you’ll hear all year: few can produce a song as arresting with so few vocal notes.  If Clementine is excluded from next year’s Mercury nominations then this is a case for the prosecution – an album that features a song like this is worthy of an award! ‘Farewell Sonata’ rises in heat and brings Clementine’s vocal into the mix. It layers and strikes; it is strange, mystical and trippy – another left-turn and phase that keeps the song scintillating and dramatic.

‘God Save the Jungle’ frames that low and rich voice in a track that looks at an urban environment where railway lines are stairways and there is a sense of danger and uncertainty – the aliens and excluded treading carefully against the danger and violence around them. ‘Phantom of Aleppoville’ is, according to Clementine, a place where children are bullied (and few are safe). Its racing keys accelerate the pulse; grace weaves in the shadows and the beauty-concoction seduces the mind. ‘Jupiter’, the album’s standout, has gospel vocal rises as the hero looks at his place as an immigrant – someone seen as out of this world and separate. He yearns for security and acceptance: the strain in his voice and tremulous delivery highlights how “Ben’s an alien” – who is passing everyone by. In an album with so many highlights; one would think a song called ‘Awkward Fish’ might be throwaway – this would be a foolhardy prediction! Its trip-hop beats and pulsing synths balance Clementine’s always riveting and stirring voice. It is a song where you do not really listen to the words but let the entire mood and sensation swim in the blood. ‘Quintessence’ is another classical-themed track that lets its keys pirouette and balletically tip-toe. Clementine looks at war and animals; men are “purely evil” and he, by contrast, was born with “a spoon in me (sic) mouth” – other men have bullets in their hands. It is a stunning and affecting song that needs to be heard multiple times – it has a profound impact every time you hear it.

I Tell a Fly will be among the year’s highest-rated albums, for sure. I said Queens of the Stone Age’s Villains is this year’s best: it pales in significance to the impact, powerful and immense beauty of Benjamin Clementine’s latest creation! It is prophetic and personal; gorgeous and engrossing. If you are not blown away by the vocal-and-keys combination then the poetic, novel-worthy lyrical templates take you somewhere otherworldly and thought-provoking. Clementine is a man who produces music to nourish the mind and make people think. I Tell a Fly is about Clementine’s struggles…but it goes much further. It is a staggering work from a young man who grows stronger by the record – a scary projection that proves he is one of the finest talents in all of music.