Benjamin Clementine – I Tell a Fly
Though the second half drags, Benjamin Clementine's I Tell a Fly demands repeat listens, and promises sustained delight
Benjamin Clementine, the self-styled “expressionist” who says he doesn’t want his backstory-turned-cover story to distract from his art, has wandered his way into yet another plum promotional pitch. First it was the barefoot Métro busker making his Jools Holland debut with Macca and the Arctic Monkeys. Before and after Clementine’s Mercury Prize win, critics self-consciously tried – and usually failed – to distance the story from the man. Now, the 29-year-old says that his sophomore LP, I Tell a Fly, was inspired by an American visa, stamped with a phrase accidentally beautiful, emotionally arresting, and politically relevant: “an alien of extraordinary abilities.”
Is anyone equally deserving of that visa stamp? While he has your attention, Clementine holds all the operative words in that phrase to himself.
There is something sometimes distended about the extraordinary alien’s singing – he blows his vowels like bubblegum bubbles, bigger than any of the other kids can. Yet at other times they become as thin as ivory paper knives, which he wields to cut open our endless folded pages, to show us what is written there. Far more than an existential tour guide or librarian, he’s sure to leave something of himself behind – a daub of paint, a highlight, every motion at once sure and self-surprised. Much of what has risen to the top in writing about Clementine’s singing is true. He sounds like a male Nina Simone with a different admixture of emotions. He sounds like a Charles Aznavour with a deeper, fuller spinto, mimicking Al Pacino interpreting Shakespeare.
And he sounds wholly original. On I Tell a Fly, he offers stunning, stirring proof that his originality extends beyond his voice to his phrasing on every instrument he touches – piano, but also here, showcased to great effect, harpsichord and clavichord – as well as to arrangements and production. All of which conspires to pummel and purge every tired expectation that repetitive rap, rock, dance, pop, indie, and alternative music have wrought into us. Appropriately, the album opens with Farewell Sonata.
Clementine’s full-length debut, At Least for Now, was an autobiography and an introduction. After listening only to the first track of his sophomore effort, it’s evident the title was – perhaps even, chillingly, by design – a signal of the change to come. I Tell a Fly is a sonic epic – a meditation on flight, war, bullying, trust, and those inexpressible emotional facts that urge us into our most fundamental, unconscious gestures: to touch, to strike, to venture.
It may be best to say I Tell a Fly is an auditory theatrical experience that explores the quality of being alien. Clementine never strays too far from autobiography, and much of this exploration is personal. But the album is also openly political, sustaining through its 45 minutes an awareness, occasionally rising to a direct treatment, of current and recent events like the Syrian civil war, the migrant crises in the Mediterranean and at Calais, “Americanness,” and the interwovenness of foreign and domestic policy in the US, the UK, and elsewhere. But it doesn’t present or lecture the listener with an outsider narrative – instead it pushes the listener outside, into the open weather.
The first half of this effort is more interesting than the second: Paris Cor Blimey lags, though it ends with a beautiful teasing interpretation of Clair de Lune over rolling drums; it’s the start of a downward trend, through the oddly conventional Jupiter, the malingering Ode from Joyce, and so on. The last tracks may have benefitted from a critical reworking; but they are necessary for the whole. And that whole – which combines overt and more subtly bloodborne tributes to Debussy and a host of other influences; lush melodic passages of piano complicated with drum loops, loud assonant promises, and chants played in reverse; spacecraft bloops and a revolving globe of atmospheres – demands repeat listens, and promises sustained delight.
Lyrically and sonically, I Tell a Fly suggests that to be a refugee is a universal condition; that escape is inescapable; that we are in flight – that we might be flying together – and that even through our pain and insufficience, this flight together might be beautiful, a kind of play. At least for now. As Clementine sings on Better Sorry Than a Safe, 'Well, we live once, don’t we? / Yet we breathe more than once, don’t we? / We must leave then, at once, darling.'
Enjoy this singular album, this moment, while you can – Clementine won’t be holding his breath.
Listen to: Farewell Sonata, Better Sorry Than a Safe, Phantom of Alleppoville