Review Summary: A collection of sung poetry from the man who went from sleeping on the streets of Paris all the way to accepting 2015's Mercury Prize.
Benjamin Clementine's story is one of an underdog. His unconventionality had been noticed at an early age, by playing Erik Satie on his brother’s old piano and skipping school to attend libraries instead of friends' houses. Yet, after failing his education and suffering personal and financial turmoil, he relocated from London to the streets of Paris, playing for crowds and unsuccessfully applying for part time jobs. He remained in cheap hostels and avoided trouble by devoting his hours to songwriting. Upon missing a train for a gig in Rotterdam in 2012, he attempted to walk 45 kilometres to reach it, ultimately being unsuccessful. These are just few examples of the efforts Clementine took to realise his musical dream throughout his life in an almost self-destructive manner, akin to the character of the troubled artist in works of classical literature he had spent much of his time reading about as a child. Hence, it is no surprise that he would imbue these two passions together, filling the Parisian metro not with cookie-cutter sentimental piano chords aimed at pulling in a euro or two, but strongly poetic, autobiographical music marinated in a sea of spoken word, classical piano technique, and a resonating, bellowing voice. The result of this is the Nina Simone-esque, spoken word, Bohemian diary of Benjamin Clementine – At Least for Now.
Before indulging in the songs, one cannot ignore Benjamin’s style of piano playing. It is highly rhythmical and sonically diverse, with moments of solemnity punctured by sporadic instances of unabashed passion; the use of techniques like mordents, triads, and the use of pedal (to name a few) trickle all around this album, bringing in their own colourful moods, until occasional drops and rising octaves pull the listener in with an almost gravitational weight. There is a high level of attraction to be found here, as he executes the pianoforte perfectly. The climax of “Then I Heard a Bachelor’s Cry” with its adornment of rushed vocal delivery hits as hard as a punch, yet the nimbleness of “Nemesis” and “Adios” toys with the listener’s ear, as each song sings its own story and carries on in rhythmical playfulness.
One might say that a lack of such a style of piano playing in mainstream music is what strengthens this album’s appeal, and there is an argument to be made – after all, the music is by no means avant-garde or groundbreaking, as it references the classical musicians Benjamin grew up learning from. Instead, the truly distinguishing feature is what accompanies the music. Clementine’s voice jitters off-beat in some moments but plows through in others, as he sings his ornate lyrics like a frenzied poet. His tone grounds these however, as its innate deepness and tenuto-like quality function as the focal point from which all the album’s merits bounce off of. It grants him the maturity and believability needed to pull off numerous instances of artistic flavour sprinkled throughout the album. However, this does work better in some cases than others. The alliteration and rhyming followed by breathy vocals on the opening track form a wonderful pensive atmosphere, while the wailing in “Quiver a Little” can put off the close-minded and unimpressed. This runs in a similar vein to Joanna Newsom
’s unique style of singing which deters those who haven’t invested enough time in deeply listening to the music itself. Although, while her voice and inflections are exaggerated to the point of forming a unique style, Clementine’s such moments do not come anywhere near to her level of personality and gusto. Still, even such more “pompous” moments on At Least for Now grow on to you over time, as repeated trips through this album remind and reinforce Clementine’s musical range and passionate fervour when it comes to describing his bumpy road through life.
However, the truly charming part of this album is Clementine’s moments where even his voice is at the mercy of his emotions. There, his appeal is quintessentially portrayed - when the weight and pains of his life, his very muses, rain down on him as he continues to sing, trying to reach moments of glee. The monologue in “Adios” is a perfect example of this. After the slamming piano and a violin trill have their dance with one another, ending in climax, he chants about visions of angels before singing a light, almost heavenly melody built on vowels and his piano progressions. In “Gone” – once again in his poetic style – he uses metaphors rooted in narration effortlessly. His lyrics of being ‘brought to a royal banquet, just to be served a brew and a wretched floor’ are enunciated so nostalgically and sensitively, as his naturally deep voice trails on in his airy, higher register. This
is when I am captivated by his story, by his writing, by his music. No matter how rich the vocabulary of the writer, even the simplest moments of emotional vulnerability say a thousand words more than a thesaurus could.
With all this in mind, At Least for Now demands to be listened to as a piece of art and not as background fodder. Having one of the thirteen songs come on shuffle on a Spotify playlist will not do the album justice. It requires the same attitude required when reading works of classical literature; to appreciate the themes found inside, one must enter clear of mind, ready to absorb a foreign collection of memories and perspectives from start to finish. Similarly, if I owned the album on vinyl, I would gladly play it on a record player at the cool of an autumn day, recline backwards, and travel with Benjamin through his collection of autobiographical poetry moulded around the versatility of his piano.