Benjamin Clementine, the Edmonton-raised now Los Angeles located musician, is one who hides in plain sight. Six foot three. A slick sartorial presence with his slim tailored jackets. An extraordinary pianist who sits behind the ivories barefoot, arched in a let’s say very un-ergonomic posture as he plays. He was even in that Timothée Chalamet film Dune for a bit. But yet, there’s little publicity for this revelatory new record. Nothing to galvanise this release except its own exceptional quality. But, it has always been that way.
Clementine’s breakthrough in 2014 seemingly came from nowhere. The instantaneous hype catalysed by the free-flowing, almost juvenile purity and brilliance of Clementine’s voice. A voice so powerful it could belt out tunnels in the hardest of mountains, a voice so warm that it could heat a village, and a voice so deeply sad that it birthed its own rivers. It was the music of an anxious outcast, with many of the songs road-tested on the Parisian streets he briefly made his home.
His 2017 follow-up I Tell A fly while equally as prodigious, felt more complicated. The narrative structure roughly retold a narrative about the fictional Aleppoville, a place where children experience bullying. It was clearly heartfelt but difficult to relate to. The sincere, but inchoate, mythology of an introvert who suddenly had an audience who were listening. Not to go all Patrick Bateman, but it was perhaps too artsy, too intellectual for this humble listener.
Now five years later, we have And I Have Been, a gloriously confident and distinctly weird album that harbours the soul and spectacle of his debut, while decorating it with the ornate splendour of I Tell A Fly to birth an album that feels truly singular. Opener ‘Residue’ is a good-old fashioned Chanson in the manner of Jacques Brel, with strings creeping through like mice sneaking out at night. The swing and melody of Clementine’s galloping vocals swoon, all degenerating into a delightful burst of incongruent electronic interference.
At every corner there is invention. Song titles such as ‘Weakend’ and ‘Lovelustre’ are crafted neologisms which hark back to the early awkward interviews Clementine conducted before his Mercury Prize win in 2014, including one interview in Edmonton Green Library, in which he mentioned he was creating his own dictionary with words that come to his mind. Here they seem to be employed generously, in a Finnegans Wake whirlwind of linguistic looseness.
It sharpens the very real, but quiet, mystic thread that runs through And I Have Been that may be influenced by Clementine’s admiration for the still-waters-run-deep classical music of 20th century French composer Erik Satie. The apotheosis of this beguiling combination is ‘Copening’ where Clementine’s howls smear the track like a fine buttery spread with his words loud whispers, cooing “This wiley road / Won’t crash my hopes / This mighty road / Won’t stop my soul”.
It all compounds together to create an exceptional outlier of an album. One that is personal, entirely of its own, but open and communicative. Through the words used, through the tempo employed, and through the timbre evoked, it’s somehow simultaneously a relic and an innovation. One barefoot in the past, one in the future.
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