Benjamin Clementine emerged as a surprise winner of the 2015 Mercury Prize with his first album At Least for Now, a collection of eccentric but beautiful piano ballads. For many artists, such a successful debut would be the platform for a lucrative career pitched at the mainstream, and it wouldn’t have surprised me to hear a new record from Clementine that sounded accessible and easy on the ears.
I Tell a Fly is not that record. No – this is an example of an artist leveraging their initial success to pursue their own singular vision to completion, and it is one of the most bizarrely brilliant records I heard all year. It finds Clementine doubling down on all of his most eccentric tendencies – acrobatic & high-pitched vocals, obtuse and poetic storytelling, and a wide-ranging gamut of musical influences.
Many of the songs on this strange, unclassifiable record are fragmented, and move between several different passages which are often wildly at odds to each other. Opener ‘Farewell Sonata’ begins with an echoing drone which segways into a gorgeous solo piano, but at the two-minute mark a psychedelic synthesizer gurgles its way into the song, which then suddenly explodes for all of ten seconds into a passage of huge, booming drums. And then the song ends, rather abruptly, on that same wandering piano.
The structure is utterly confounding, but makes the record feel unpredictable in a way few others were in 2017. Nothing is off the table for Clementine – songs might take a thirty second detour through trip-hop, or even drum ‘n’ bass, before winding back to something resembling a chorus. And in between, you’ll hear a diverse range of instruments, with some particularly strange and creative use of the harpsichord in more than one song.
There are a few moments of more straightforward brilliance that will appeal to those who liked the sweeping ballads of At Least for Now. One hair-raising moment comes in the middle of ‘Better Sorry than Asafe’, where Clementine croons over a bed of plaintive piano chords: ‘If you won’t come with me, I understand / Give us a last kiss’, and then howls: ‘Bon voyaaaaaage…don’t know where I’m going’.
But these are the exception rather than the rule on I Tell a Fly, which is more often than not mysterious and avant-garde. Many will find it too obtuse, and there are certainly parts of the record (‘Paris Cor Blimey’ for one) where I would agree. But taken as a whole, I Tell a Fly is just so unique, and I can only admire the daring and dedication it must have taken for Clementine to push something like this through his record label.
Make no mistake – I Tell a Fly will not be launching Benjamin Clementine to widespread success, or netting him any more accolades. But it is irrefutable proof of an artist in sway to nobody and nothing but his own wild imagination, and was among my very favourite albums of the year.