There’s a sense of spectacle when Benjamin Clementine’s music sounds out. It comes as no surprise, then, that his new album I Tell a Fly began life as the basis for a play. In fact, Clementine’s sonic world sits somewhere in a solar system shared by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Freddie Mercury, and Claude Debussy. Immediately in ‘Farewell Sonata’ – a tongue-in-cheek title choice for an album opener, though we’d expect no less – hints of Queen burst out from beneath otherwise gentle, arpeggiated melodies.
It doesn’t take long to realise that Clemetine’s genius extends beyond his extraordinary voice and masterful compositions, the content of his work proving to be just as intricate and considered: ‘God Save the Jungle’, for example, is a haunting, ironic reference to the refugee camp in Calais. The jarring harpsichord tones reappear as the theme of displacement reappears in ‘One Awkward Fish’ as well as in ‘Phantom of Aleppoville’, this time coupled with hysterical chants and trickling keys as he simultaneously addresses the difficulties of his own childhood.
Politics filter through once again, ‘Paris Cor Blimey’ contrasting the innocence of nursery rhymes with the resurgence of the far-right in France, influenced by the latter’s tendency for victim-blaming. The references to Le Pen come through thick and fast, before Debussy’s iconic ‘Clair de Lune’ sways in and out of tune.
Meanwhile ‘By the Ports of Europe’ sees Clementine distance himself somewhat from the horror he tackles elsewhere in the album, the refugee crisis now told from the perspective of a TV spectator, mirrored in the song’s comparatively light-hearted tones. As the closure of the album nears, ‘Quintessence’ strips down to a song that is striking for its sheer modesty, returning the emphasis to his breathtaking voice and in turn the lyrics. In this penultimate track, he explores the uncertainty of moving on to new places and experiences, before culminating with the fittingly theatrical ‘Ave Dreamer’ as the curtain rises for the final time.
Though I Tell a Fly is already a captivating listen on the surface, Benjamin Clementine’s ability to delve into both his own experiences and the chaos of the world around us makes it a wholly outstanding release.