Since his startling rise to musical stardom, culminating in deserved Mercury Prize success for his debut album At Least for Now in 2015, many have swooned for Benjamin Clementine. Like his fruity namesake, reviewers have recommended listening to him at least 5 times a day; some research, unconfirmed and unsubstantiated, even suggests him as a possible alleviate for scurvy. Thus his sophomore release, I Tell a Fly, was met with equal helpings of excitement and expectation.
The album conceptualises Clementine’s thoughts on his own experiences of bullying, and relocating to New York in an attempt to aid his writing process (something that, having listened to the album, I briefly considered for this review). It also glances to more geopolitical themes, such as the ongoing crises in Syria and the refugee camps of Calais, through the romantic misadventures of his two principle protagonists: two lovesick flies, who in turn channel Clementine’s feelings of being alien.
It begins with the mordantly-titled ‘Farewell Sonata’. Introducing itself politely with a traditionally Clementine-esque piano melody before descending drastically into something that would not have been out of place from a renaissance guitarist in a Tudor Court or Shakespearean Theatre (Clementine references the “bard” himself on ‘Jupiter’). It then shifts once again into a frantically-thrashing, modernist, Bowie-inspired assembly of drums and vocals. As it turns out, this is going to be Clementine’s chosen song structure throughout the record, namely, that there will be no structure. This is emulated perhaps most tellingly in ‘One Awkward Fish’, which oscillates between a rhythm-led drum track and Clementine’s Nina Simone-like vocals, ultimately finishing as a choral number.
This is an entirely deliberate, notwithstanding controversial, artistic decision. Whilst it undeniably shows Clementine’s mastery of many-and-varied musical forms, it makes it difficult to engage with each track as an individual. Just as Clementine presents you with a catchy, technically difficult piano track more symptomatic of At Least for Now, it is clawed away and replaced with something harsh, raw and angry. You can almost hear the record’s producers clawing their hair out on the other end of the studio as they are teased with a best-selling melody, but instead are presented with something meaningful, more intelligent but less commercial.
This is the paradox inherent within the record. In a recent interview with The Fader, Clementine stated “I want everyone to hear this album… I just want people to hear something different”. Whilst this is a noble, and altogether respectable, vision, it is limited, nay counterbalanced, by the album’s varied and distinctive sounds that are not nearly as promotable to a radio-audience. What it gains in intelligence and creativity, it loses in terms of the approachability that songs such as ‘London’ or ‘I Won’t Complain’ on At Least for Now were seeped in.
As an artistic decision, it will certainly cap outreach, but in doing so, Clementine has allowed himself to approach many different issues he sees in the world around him. Clementine is able to flit seamlessly between a story of forgiving his nefarious do-no-gooder childhood bully and the Syrian crisis in ‘Phantom of Aleppoville’, or is able to formulate the ominously dark second track of the album ‘God Save the Jungle’, a spin-off of the UK’s national anthem reimagined with the refugee camps of Calais in mind.
At the same time, Clementine does this through the story of his two flies, whose adventures see them meeting new animals: “A free lion’s angry…buffalos are coming…an eagle cries” writes Clementine in the antepenultimate track ‘Ports of Europe’. In terms of breadth of ideas for songs, it is evident that Clementine has enough material to devote perhaps two or three albums to the ideas explored in I Tell a Fly. Equally, the complexity involved in hiding metaphors in a concept album which is itself a further metaphor (metaphorception?) for something else is simply too difficult to be, as aforementioned, approachable.
With such a range of lyrics, Clementine could have better expressed these individual trains of thoughts by simply writing more songs focussing on each idea in a more exact manner. But while this is true, through a well-thought out composition, enriched by his rich, unique voice, fuelled by his distinct annunciation and backed by an interesting arrangement, Clementine succeeds in fully exploring the topics he’s chosen to address with the profundity required.