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ALBUM REVIEW: I Tell A Fly by Benjamin Clementine

September 14, 2017 11:00 am

Out 15 September

Review by Tom Cooney.

Benjamin Clementine CREDIT Craig McDean

Benjamin Clementine is one of the most exciting figures in the musical landscape of today. His well-documented rise from sleeping rough in Paris to unexpectedly bagging the 2015 Mercury Prize is almost legend – but how do you follow such a victory? Benjamin Clementine has tackled the dangers of sophomore-record-disappointment by delving deeper into the abstract side of his music. He has forged a piece of art in I Tell A Fly that will divide opinion more than his debut, but it is undeniably more interesting in concept, ambition and style.

The album explores the notion of being alien, both regarding Clementine himself and in devastating global contexts. The harrowing setting of Aleppo is traversed in the record’s first single, the artist refusing to ease his audience in gently. Yet, “I wouldn’t say it’s just to do with Syria,” the man has stated regarding ‘Phantom of Aleppoville’. Clementine doesn’t overtly tackle the crisis, rather using the microcosmic figure of “Billy the bully” to represent the phantom behind his own bullying experiences, as well as behind the exponentially larger trauma of Aleppo. Intertwining these two topics is a dangerous move, but Clementine isn’t one to play it safe. It’s a mantra that doesn’t always succeed, but the unusual sonic structure of ‘Phantom of Aleppoville’ makes it work.

‘Aleppoville’ is a six-plus-minute smorgasbord of sound – with varying instrumentation, an ever-shifting tempo and manic bouts of screeching vocals. It’s the very definition of unconventional, but musical conventions are nowhere to be found in the blueprint of I Tell A Fly. Take album opener ‘Farewell Sonata’ as another example. The track masks itself as a piano instrumental, lacking any vocals until around three quarters of the way in – only then appearing for a brief minute. It’s the first sign that I Tell A Fly is not an album to be listened to in fragments; Clementine demands it be appreciated linearly, and in full. It’s a big ask for an audience rooted in a world saturated by shuffling and streaming, but if the man’s views on artists who create purely to entertain (“no better than a con”) are anything to go by, it’s an unsurprising one.

However, one element of Clementine’s second effort that transcends all lyrical and musical unorthodoxy is his undeniable raw talent. The vocal comparisons with Nina Simone are blatantly well founded, with his immersion in each track manifesting in everything from eerie spoken word to moments of passionate frenzy. Accompanied by a piano that swims throughout the record – ranging from its potent presence in ‘God Save the Jungle’ to the twinkling introduction into ‘Quintessence’ – Clementine has crafted a magical listening experience.

While not always successful in its absurdism, I Tell A Fly is the perfect vehicle for the London musician’s unique style. Truly an artwork more than an album, it proves time and time again that Benjamin Clementine is a man who – despite his incredible journey – is yet to reach his peak.

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