English singer/songwriter Benjamin Clementine has been making the rounds with a couple of appetizer EPs in preparation for the release of his debut album At Least for Now. It’s made up of eleven originals, a handful of the carried over from the EPs, and it sounds like he died eleven times while making it. His piano style is relies on repetition to drive the sense of drama, but that’s nothing compared to his voice. He uses it to stretch his range way up, take it back down low, warble at full force, pull it back to a soft moan and stop in the middle of a song to talk about angels.
The songs on At Least for Now run the gamut to extremely engaging to extremely overwrought. That’s the risk you run when you invest time in an artist who cites Satie, Hendrix, and Pavarotti as influences while going out of his way to perform in bare feet. This endless capacity to deeply emote is Clementine’s chief strength and weakness. Sometimes his lyrics are concise and get right to the heart of the matter. At other times, you will wonder what all of those crammed-tight syllables are trying to get across and why. Fortunately, Clementine has a knack for a good melody. First you have to make it past lines like “never in the field of human affection / Had so much been given for so few attention.”
“Cornerstone” was the main attraction of one of Benjamin Clementine’s previous EPs, and in it he is absolutely howling over his loneliness. He’s “alone in a box of my own”, but insists that it’s his “home, home, home, home, home, home, home, home”. The fact that each and every one of these “homes” comes to close to sounding like “hope” is probably another one of those little puzzles that Clementine feels is necessary for his listeners to decipher. But man, this is a fine waltz. He drapes the melody over the form as if it can’t possibly fit in any other way. Piano and voice are all that’s needed for “Cornerstone”, but At Least for Now‘s other key moment is built with a tight arrangement. “London” is another extremely catchy and captivating song that might be about nothing—or everything. Or a man who doesn’t know who or what he is. “London London London is calling you” goes the soaring chorus, though “you” are probably not the one in this narrative. If you were, “London” would probably be about the city. But then you wouldn’t be able to explain “on a road where Cleopatras comes and go like fishes caught in ponds thrown back for fun”.
Don’t go thinking that Benjamin Clementine represents only himself. He expresses the opposite fact in probably the most overreaching way possible on “The People and I”: “And I write for the people and I / I speak for the people and I.” He stops in the middle of “Adios”, string ensemble included, to explain to you—the listener—how the melodies of angels sound. Actual angels. He even begs your pardon by saying “excuse me, to take your time…” before launching into a soft falsetto. It’s a genuinely beautiful and musical moment, as lovely as it is odd.
Benjamin Clementine may have populist goals but his oblique sense of poetry is going to be an acquired taste for most. Couple that with his tortured voice and his climb will prove to be steeper still. Fortunately, Clementine’s vocal histrionics come with a certain amount of skill—a skill to sing his ass off. If his melodic gifts just weren’t required to do so much heavy lifting, he could really take the singer/songwriter world by fire. At Least for Now—I just realized how tenuous that title sounds!
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