Benjamin Clementine follows his Mercury prize winning debut – 2015’s At Least For Now – with an intricate, frantic and at times overwhelmingly complex piece of work. Originally written in play format, I Tell a Fly is dramatic from beginning to end.
The album is written, sung, played and produced by Benjamin. Inspired by classical impressionists like Erik Satie and Japanese electronic pioneer Isao Tomita, his distinctive tone, playful exaggerated accents and technical ability shine throughout. I Tell A Fly could not be by any other artist. Benjamin Clementine strikes out in territory that is solely, and wholly his own.
There was a line on his Visa approval to travel from Europe to the United States that read “An alien of extraordinary abilities”. It was this sentence that inspired the narrative of I Tell A Fly, playing with the notion of the wanderer, the explorer, the different, the outsider, driven by the geo-political climate. Take ‘God Save The Jungle’ and ‘Paris Cor Blimey’ which are dark and menacing comments on the refugee crisis. The darkness is often alleviated by jarring harpsichord sounding artificially buoyant amongst Benjamin’s soaring top notes and a chorus of vocal harmonies.
As much as its content explores the alien, so I Tell A Fly is alien to the structure of a traditional pop song. So many ideas are crammed into a singular piece of music that it’s a constant challenge for the listener to keep up. This is not an album you can put on in the background, I Tell A Fly requires your absolute attention. Opener ‘Farewell Sonata’ jumps from a menacing and reverberating intro, to a piano melody rich with melancholy, to scattered harpsichord that wouldn’t sound out of place on a fairground. ‘Phantom of Aleppoville’ continues in the same vain, reaching from a dreamy intro to crashing marching drums with a lively chorus of vocals and then skipping right back to a muffled piano interlude. ‘Jupiter’ is where we’re allowed a moment of reprieve. More melodic than the rest of the album there’s a more recognisable verse, chorus, verse structure. “Ben’s an alien, passing by,” he sings softly, touching on the consistent sense of not fitting in.
I Tell A Fly conjures up images of a Baroque performance, neck ruffles everywhere, a spindly harpsichord squashed into a corner of the stage. It feels eccentric and extravagant, satirical and compassionate. Benjamin Clementine is an overtly intelligent artist; I Tell A Fly challenges the listener sonically and lyrically to think, to listen and to probe. The exaggerated accents may occasionally seem insincere in their melodrama, but listening to the closing ‘Ave Dreamer’ there is no question in the soaring and echoing vocal harmonies singing “dreamers stay strong” that Benjamin Clementine believes in strength in numbers and welcoming the wanderer.