I listened to Benjamin Clementine’s At Least For Now a couple of times back in January when it was released, but it wasn’t until the album won the 2015 Mercury Prize that I really took notice and gave it a proper listen. I’m glad I did – this has been a real grower of a record that’s steadily become one of my favourite singer-songwriter releases of the year. The album is stuffed back to front with powerful, somewhat eccentric ballads delivered in Clementine’s deep baritone, and the vocal performances are consistently fantastic throughout. “Then I Heard a Bachelor’s Cry” and “Cornerstone” in particular contain some of the most hair-raising vocals I’ve heard all year: you owe it to yourself to watch the video for the latter track, which I’ve linked at the bottom of this review. It’s nothing but Benjamin, a piano and a camera in a dimly lit room, but the pure emotion in his face and in his voice gives me chills every time I watch it.
Clementine’s piano playing is as forceful as his vocal delivery, and tends to favour short musical phrases played quickly and powerfully. ‘Cornerstone’ is a great example of this, as is ‘Adios’, a track with an off-kilter, almost ragtime-esque melody which breaks down into a soaring ambient hymn in the bridge. Here, and on the following track ‘St-Clementine-on-tea-and-Croissants’, the sinister undertones and vocal eccentricities display a touch of Tom Waits influence, but Clementine has a lot of personality of his own. Throughout the album he remains both vulnerable and commanding, performing with an enormous amount of confidence. At Least For Now also contains some lovely string arrangements to compliment Clementine’s piano and vocals. ‘London’ is the album’s most single-worthy track, and it boasts a sweeping chorus of strings and steady drums which come together to stirring effect. ‘Nemesis’ also uses strings to great effect in the chorus, forming the backdrop to Clementine’s parental mantra: “Treat others the way you want to be treated”. And ‘The People And I’ is another highlight, a lovely, doe-eyed ballad that sounds like it could have come straight out of Joni Mitchell’s Blue.
You have to commend the Mercury Prize judges for awarding Clementine this year’s award: his album is an unusual one as far as piano-centric singer-songwriter albums go, and there are a number of more conventionally trendy records among the nominees like Jamie XX or Wolf Alice who could’ve easily taken it. But this is an album full of raw emotion and wonderful performances that fully deserves the recognition it’s receiving, and hopefully serves as a rebuttal to Clementine’s self-directed pessimism on ‘London’: “look at you, look at you, the game is over / your cup is full, your cup is full, stop praying for more exposure”.