Benjamin Clementine
I Tell A Fly

(Virgin EMI)


There’s been a slew of artists releasing state of the nation albums in the wake of Trump’s election and Brexit but few have done so as intriguingly as Benjamin Clementine.

A narrative-led release about the alien, it’s given credence by a musician who has experience of being ‘the migrant, the stranger… the refugee’. A self-taught classical pianist from Edmonton, north London he became homeless and busked in Paris before he won the Mercury Prize in 2015 with his debut ‘At Least For Now’.

It’s an extraordinary back-story that’s woven into the fabric of these eleven tracks, which are informed by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott as much as they are nursery rhymes and electronic pioneer Isao Tomita.

He takes these unconventional influences in continually unpredictable directions, with the average song containing enough ideas to populate an entire album. The sheer breadth of this unrestrained creativity and the ambitious arrangements, which he scored and recorded on his own, is daunting.

‘God Save The Jungle’ – one of the more straightforward numbers – references baroque music hall by way of interpolating the national anthem. On a more complex track, such as ‘Phantom Of Aleppoville’, he can’t decide whether he wants to be Bat For Lashes, Erik Satie or David Bowie.

Yet, the way in which he effortlessly moves through outwardly disjointed styles and mannered vocal ranges, seemingly at ease emulating both Nina Simone and Scott Walker, becomes increasingly oppressive. By the time the Radiohead-play-jazz ‘One Awkward Fish’ is reached there’s a desire for some musical economy to let the song – and the listener – breathe.

An undoubtedly singular talent, ‘I Tell A Fly’ is impressive in its reach and aspirations. It has moments of brilliance; moments when Clementine would benefit from some restraint; but there are never any moments that are remotely ordinary.