Review Summary: Defining what it means to be an artist, in a day and age when it feels like every possible idea has been exhausted.
Never before have I been more convinced of someone’s genius and downright insanity at the same time. How I feel about Benjamin Clementine reminds me of an early 1900’s quote by pianist/author/comedian Oscar Levant, in which he stated, “There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.” I feel like that’s the perfect portrayal of Clementine, a man who literally wrote a concept album about two flies traveling the world and sharing their experiences, all while tying those stories into world issues. Of course, that’s where the genius comes in: as the “flies” traveled the world, so did Clementine. While recording, he spent time just about everywhere – from London to New York to Syria – observing, learning, and writing. You’ll hear several references to aliens on this record, but he doesn’t mean the celestial kind – he’s at various points referring to either border migrants or himself, a man who became a mere fly on the wall in some of the most tumultuous corners of our planet, absorbing his surroundings and turning them into art.
Clementine’s backstory is essential to understanding his work now. He witnessed a rather astronomical rise, going from a homeless musician in Paris to the winner of 2015’s Mercury Prize for his debut album At Least For Now
. Benjamin’s voice would never have been heard on an international level, though, had it not been for a happenstance encounter with an agent one night while he was busking in Paris. It’s anecdotes about his past such as this that tell you everything that you need to know about him: Clementine is as authentic as they come, and his struggles have afforded him a wealth of material worth playing about. The fact that he was sleeping in the streets as recently as 2011 lends him, and his music, a great deal of humility. He understands the plight of the impoverished and the misplaced, and most of his music empathizes with those who struggle under the laws and conventions of modern society. I Tell a Fly
is the culmination of countless personal, political, and literary influences. Because we’ve already covered the first two, it’s important to also note that he heavily incorporates ideas written by William Blake, John Locke, and C.S. Lewis. It has been noted that he hated learning Shakespeare as a child because it was all the schools ever taught him, so he would spend time in local libraries soaking up the prose and wisdom of other writers and philosophers. His elective studies pay dividends here, as Clementine weaves together real and imaginary storylines like a metaphorical prodigy.
On ‘God Save the Jungle’, for instance, he ruminates about how refugees are treated in first world countries, sounding unwittingly sarcastic when he mutters “Welcome to jungle, dear” before singing, less slyly this time, “Better beat it and go back home / Cause if they find you they will kill ya!” It is clearly a commentary on the refugee crises happening all over the world, from the Middle East and Europe all the way to America. Then, on the sprawling ‘Phantom of Aleppoville’, Clementine sings about bullying on both a personal and global level. The song’s introduction is particularly telling, when, after a serenade of awe-inspiring classical piano notes, he sings, “We won’t leave you alone…we want you to die.” In revisiting the lyrical topics of the song, Clementine described the identity of “the phantom” as that which we cannot see or feel – like the reason that a bully picks on you. He goes on to explain, “ The Americans and the English, we bully people…not seeing the reason, not seeing why we get bullied, is basically the phantom.” Of course, Aleppo is one of the centers of the Syrian civil war – a fact that can’t be lost among the symbolism that Clementine pens here.
Elsewhere, Benjamin addresses more general concerns, successfully capturing issues such as war, poverty, and ignorance. He condemns indoctrinated violence on ‘Quintessence’ when he sings – atop fluttering piano – “Men are purely evil…for whereas I was born with a spoon in me mouth, others are nurtured with a bullet in their hands.” It’s indicative of some areas of the world where children are raised wielding semi-automatics, taught to defend their religion at all costs – even via means like suicide bombings. On the opposite end of the spectrum there’s America, for which he waxes poetic in an almost tongue-in-cheek fashion, through a series of verses that explain how privileged yet unware of it the nation has become: “American chap whose mouth is pressed against sweet earth flowing breast / American chap who may in summer wear a golden nest around his neck, upon whose blossoms other men will slay, leaving him intimate with pain / Such is the humming way of an earnest American soul - buried deep in books, blues, jazz, and rock 'n roll / Poems are made by fools like this English lad…only God can make an American chap.” The contrast is palpable between a song like ‘Ode From Joyce’ and the aforementioned ‘Quintessence’, offering an uncomfortable look at the division of wealth on a global scale. When he isn’t delving into the nitty gritty politics of our era, he’s commenting on the simplicity of human nature, and the duality of emotion: “We laugh some, hate some…and that's about it really.”
While I I Tell a Fly
is rife with the ugliness of our modern global society, and how we treat the less fortunate, it is as breathtakingly beautiful musically as any album I’ve heard in my life. The classical influences tend to rule all, with gorgeous waves of piano serving as the driving force behind most tracks, while Clementine’s witty and unpredictable taste for the experimental guides the album’s creative life force. The complexity and imagination of Clementine’s musical ability is put at the forefront immediately with ‘Farewell Sonata’, an expansive classical piano overture that warps about halfway through into a spacey, synth-backed series of ooh
’s, all before once again turning the track on its side for a round of amped-up rhythmic percussion and loose-cannon shouts of “Birds that cannot fly and fishes that cannot swim / Black and white and man that cannot love / What anomaly？” Oh, and then it fades out with another classical piano section, as if none of the preceding madness just occurred. It’s the perfect microcosm for the twisting, turning mannerisms that oversee most of I Tell a Fly
. Listeners who enter the experience blissfully unaware of just how weird
Clementine can be are in for an unexpected treat, surely.
Another gem, and likely the absolute pinnacle of the Benjamin Clementine’s young career, is ‘Phantom of Aleppoville.’ I cannot possibly bestow enough praise upon this track, which ebbs and flows with a blend of grace and oddness that simply can’t be manufactured and comes along ever so rarely. Spanning six and a half minutes, the song gradually builds up from intricate, trickling piano notes to more graceful and elegant ones. By the time the song is one minute in, the two styles intertwine and dance together playfully, and it sounds like we’re immersed in some eighteenth century classical masterpiece. Like ‘Farewell Sonata’ prepared us for, though, you have to be ready for Clementine’s avant-garde inclinations – such as when ‘Phantom of Aleppoville’ changes course into militaristic drumming and a unintelligible, tribal-sounding chants. The most stunning juncture comes a little more than halfway through, when the song falls into a lush, vocal-centric moment where Benjamin forgives “Billy the Bully” (it’s not clear precisely who this is, although it can be inferred that this is someone who bullied him during his own childhood). Through all of its topsy-turvy progressions, it still remains one of the most accessible tracks on I Tell a Fly
, which says something about just how unconventional the record is as a whole.
I Tell a Fly
is one of the most aesthetically beautiful albums that I’ve ever heard, in all of my years of listening to and analyzing music. The classical elements provide a stunning foundation, while Clementine’s brilliant musical mind runs with the rest. It’s truly one of those records where you have no idea what is about to happen next. It’s bold, daring, and impulsive – jumping from one thought to the next but always in a fashion that is masterfully composed. It’s also only his second album. It would be quite difficult to imagine Benjamin topping this, but he has proven already himself to be among the rarest, most brilliant of composers – the type that you simply can’t place limitations upon. Clementine might currently be classified as any combination of avant-garde, classical, jazz, soul, or even pop. But there’s a reason that people like me have such a difficult time placing him, and it’s because he transcends genre boundaries. Benjamin Clementine is himself, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my definition of him changes entirely by the time his third album is released. When writing about David Bowie’s death in 2016 I said that the word “artist”, along with its lofty implications, is too often thrown around. It’s used to describe anyone who makes even the shallowest of music, or who creates something regardless of how derivative it is at its core. Artistry isn’t something limited to one aspect of your life; it’s who you are
. Clementine has absorbed himself in the arts – from music to poetry to literature – and uses it to comment on the events he observes occurring around him. It’s for this reason that I truly believe he’ll always be on the cutting edge of modern music – defining what it means to be an artist in a day and age when it feels like every possible idea has been exhausted.