Second is always difficult. Not only in music, but also in life. However Benjamin Clementine, once discovered as a homeless busker, has overcome this difficult job: Streaming his second album, with a story of our days. The Mercury-winner has swerved the mainstream and made an avant garde concept album about Aleppo, the refugee crisis and two flies in love. In an interview just before the release, he stated that “I wrote this album as a play. It was a tale of two flies traveling, and they discovered so many things. They discovered new animals that they’d never seen before, and then one left the other. So I, as a third person, the narrator, am telling the story of two flies. That’s how I came up with the album title. And of course the theme is about aliens — flies being aliens — and of course…”
Anyone expecting an album of unchallenging fodder is in for a shock. Like the voyage faced by its desperate, stateless subjects, I Tell A Fly is no easy ride. But for anyone seeking deepness, Clementine whispers with his poems, heart, and soul. It was triggered, he explains, when the phrase “an alien of extraordinary abilities” was used during the process of securing his American visa. But what’s particularly impressive is that it’s not a theme addressed simply in the lyrics, but evoked by a constantly shifting, discomfiting musical backdrop, in which polite piano and harpsichord motifs are disrupted by jarring bursts of throbbing, whining synthesiser and layers of Clementine’s own bizarrely operatic background vocal keening and muttering.
Opening track Farewell Sonata begins with a doomy, echo-drenched a capella chorus that shifts from speaker to speaker, is replaced by a piano instrumental influenced by late 19th-century impressionist music, which in turn gives way to discordant synthesiser, a burst of fragmented rock decorated with highly mannered vocals, glitching noise, then more Ravel-esque piano to fade.
At times, it’s like being caught in a crowd, swept along in a direction you didn’t anticipate. In “By The Ports Of Europe”, the result is a kind of berserk Brel chanson bruised with classical pretensions; elsewhere, the songs swing manically between lovely, Debussyan rippling piano, bustling jazz drums and bass, and grating discords flung into straitlaced musical forms – including, in the refugee song “God Save The Jungle”, a perversion of the UK national anthem. Indeed, the music’s evocation of the wanderer’s struggles effectively frees Clementine from simple narrative statement and opinion, enabling him to explore more oblique lyrical strategies, from the impermeable references to acquaintances like “one Turkish boy from Camberwell” and the “Paris friend [who] had a little pen”, to the evocative assertion in “Better Sorry Than A Safe” that “behind each lion awaits a lazy dragonfly”.
Benjamin Clementine | I Tell A Fly | Virgin EMI | 2017 | ****