Review: Benjamin Clementine 'I Tell A Fly'
The ‘difficult second album’ trope is worn-out, sure, but’s it’s a truism for a reason. Benjamin Clementine’s album has been a long time coming, and as a fan I’ve found it difficult to shake the anxiety that goes hand in hand with a sophomore release. His first album At Least For Now is near-perfect; the power, the rich vocals, the virtuosic musical talent combine with intricate storytelling at levels I hadn’t been exposed to since my introduction to Dylan or Bowie. I needn’t have worried; I Tell A Fly is even more sure-footed than his debut. It’s not an easy listen, but then it’s not supposed to be.
Clementine is a man bent on confounding categorisation. The music media likes to make things simple for their consumers; listeners like being suggested albums based on what they’ve already listened to, readers like recommendations in album reviews. Editors and algorithms alike will struggle to provide comparisons based on I Tell A Fly though because, quite simply put, no one else is doing anything remotely similar. There’s a little Leonard Cohen in there, maybe a slice of Queen, but those influences are woven so loosely into Clementine’s own musical world that they’re not altogether helpful as points of reference. At Least For Now doesn’t exactly deal in clarity of meaning, but on his second record he’s really doubled down on both lyrical and instrumental abstraction.
In a statement on his website, Clementine writes of his hope that ‘this album fulfils its purpose as the continuation from At Least For Now’, and it absolutely does. This is very clearly Chapter Two of the Clementine saga, or, as I like to call it Clementine: The Musical. The genre-splicing and eccentric vocals so wonderfully peppered throughout the debut, are nothing in comparison to the baroque stylings of I Tell A Fly.
If there’s a key overarching influence to be identified, it’s the structure and bombast of musical theatre. With the opener ‘Farewell Sonata’ I am transported straight to the music hall, curtains still down as the overture washes over the captive audience. Listen keenly or you’ll miss references to key themes that will rear their heads again later in the show, he seems to whisper in my ear. At 2 mins 40, our hero arrives with chants of ‘Farewell Alien!’ and the epic journey begins.
The rest of the album is split into three clear movements: disturbing vignettes of the migrant crisis painted in ‘God Save The Jungle’ and ‘Better Safe Than Sorry’ become darker still with the heralding of Act Two with ‘Phantom of Aleppoville’, dealing with the plight of the Syrian people, before Clementine introduces hopeful themes of unity and love in the final act beginning with ‘By The Ports of Europe’. Album closer ‘Ave Dreamer’ serves as the encore I found myself on my feet shouting for, combining many of the album’s themes in a kind of epilogue.
Although it’s littered with disturbing geopolitical references, I Tell A Fly is as much a personal album as it is a political one. Goodbyes and exorcisms are key themes throughout. Lonely and heavily bullied as a child, Clementine left his Christian household to live on the streets of Paris. ‘Oh Alien’ he shouts in ‘God Save The Jungle’, as much in reference to himself as it is the plight of migrants. Despite his Mercury Prize win, Clementine still very much figures himself as an outsider.
Don’t think you can dip in and out of this record. Like a live performance, it necessitates uninterrupted listening from beginning to end in order to be understood. When ‘Phantom of Aleppoville’ was released in May I’ve got to admit I was a bit bemused. It’s not until you hear it sandwiched between ‘Better Sorry Than Asafe’ and ‘Paris Cor Blimey’ that Clementine’s artistic intention really comes into focus. The use of the harpsichord, although initially jarring, lends the high drama a narrative like this needs. It also represents a development in Clementine’s own musical journey. At Least For Now wouldn’t have worked with such bombastic production choices, but Clementine has evolved, both musically and personally, since then.
Slowly but surely Clementine is letting us into his world. Think of I Tell A Fly as season two of a whirlwind HBO boxset. We are witness to the evolution of a superior writing talent, who knows to keep us guessing is part of the experience. It’s not perfect - the tap labelled ‘stream of consciousness’ should have been turned off before the skiffle rhythm at the end of ‘Paris Cor Blimey’ came into being - but as the outro of Ave Dreamer fades away with the whining of an incoming computer signal we’re reminded that the journey is far from over.