Benjamin Clementine’s most recent album I Tell A Fly was released at the end of last month and listening to it is quite an unprecedented experience. This is the artist’s second album, following his mercury prize winning debut album At Least For Now. In an interview with Kate Mossman for The Guardian, Clementine claimed that he knew this album would not sell as many copies as the first one. This is perhaps due to the challenge it poses to the listener’s ears, but if you stick with it I guarantee it will be worth it. I Tell A Fly is possibly the furthest from easy – listening music as one could imagine – it is a fully immersive experience, full of unexpected twists and turns, a ball of energy that does not fit into any defined genre.
The album somewhat confusingly opens on a ‘Farewell Sonata’, which introduces his psychedelic spin on classical music, with piano layered on harpsichord phrases. This makes I Tell A Fly something of a rock opera, slightly reminiscent of Queen in its theatricality but with a pinch of subtlety and a message about global politics. Clementine drew his inspiration for this album from a line on his American visa that described him as an “alien of extraordinary abilities”. We hear this clearly on ‘God Save the Jungle’, the dark and slightly ominous second track, as well as in ‘Jupiter’, a song that stands out from the rest of the album through its soul influences and comparative simplicity, and has the line “Man’s an alien passing by… Back home in Jupiter things are getting harder”. Contrasting attitudes towards immigration in general stands out as a theme Clem- entine wants to communicate, clearly expressed in ‘(Everyone Said Come In) By the Ports of Europe’, as well as the line “the barbarians are coming” on the closing track ‘Ave Dreamer’.
Bullying and discrimination is also a clear theme of this album, seen in possibly the most unique and jarring track ‘Phantom of Aleppoville’, which tells the story of “Billy the bully” and contains one of my favourite lines: “For me the difference between love and hate/Weighs the same difference between risotto and rice pudding”. This song is a poignant poetic experience, mixing eerie harpsichord phrases, bursts of shrieks, and lyrics akin to slam poetry.
Snippets of Clementine’s life also become apparent throughout this album. At times the poetry of the lyrics become a little lost under the layers of soaring choruses and harpsichord, we hear French in ‘Better Sorry Than safe’, referencing the time he spent nearly homeless in Paris. His strict religious upbringing also seems to have an influence, seen in the rhythmic and repetitive chanting that makes these songs so hypnotising. He was forbidden from listening to popular music as a child, and we see the importance of classical music in this album especially in ‘Paris Cor Blimey’, where he borrows and plays on a phrase from Debussy’s Clair de Lune.
Ultimately, the word ‘pandemonium’ that Clementine repeats on the track ‘Paris Cor Blimey’ quite accurately characterizes this album: it is a beautiful, entrancing mess.