Current UK Chart Position – 37
When I had the idea of including new CDs into my mix of reviews I was a little concerned. My 100 Essential thread is not a problem, these are tried and tested CDs which I know well – some dating back decades. But how would I fare covering new music? I do listen to new releases but my enthusiasm tends to now be for music’s back catalogue. But in the short time I have been choosing new items for review I have been pleasantly surprised, firstly with American artist Lindsey Webster and her slick soul stylings but also with the reinvigoration of Elvis Presley. But with this debut album from this twenty-six year old British-French artist I am more than impressed I am blown away.
I had never heard of Benjamin Clementine until the announcement a week or so ago of the Mercury Prize for the Best Album Of The Year and I am sure I am not alone as this, but word is spreading as this week, spurred by the Mercury success this album has made its first appearance in the UK Top 40 at number 37. This is going to be a word of mouth release, a slow burner, which should, if there is any justice, see Clementine as one of the big breakthrough stars of 2016.
I’m not a Mercury Prize type of guy. I’m usually aware of what wins it but it doesn’t normally get me rushing to find out more about the winner. Of the eleven that were shortlisted this year only Roisin Murphy has ever made it onto my Spotify playlist. It has been in existence for the last twenty-three years and in that time I have only owned two previous winning albums – 1994’s “Elegant Slumming” by M People and 2005’s “I Am A Bird Now” by Antony & The Johnsons (the second of these is relevant to this choice). I liked both these albums at the time but they have not remained on my shelves. (Adele has never won the Mercury Prize, despite being the best selling British artist of this period and both of her albums being nominated. In fact, Adele has missed out in more ways than one as I would have been reviewing her album rather than seeking out this had she not decided to stop her album from being available for streaming – so her loss is Mr Clementine’s gain. Although, perhaps not really, as I have just ordered both CDs from Amazon.)
When I listen to streamed tracks on Spotify I’m on the lookout for specific tracks good enough for me to add to my playlists- with this album every track was good enough, which made me decide I had to actually own it. I think my generation, those of us who still remember vinyl, were very hot on categorising the music we listened to. Is it rock, pop, jazz, soul etc? Boundaries have shifted in recent years and this album defies any categorisation. If you are looking for a point of reference, however, to see whether it’s your cup of tea, here are some names – a less commercial John Legend, Gregory Porter (minus the balaclava), Noel Coward, classical composer Philip Glass, Belgian chanteur Jacques Brel, the aforementioned Antony & The Johnsons, but for me the closest artist (and have you noticed what a range of performers I’ve already mentioned) to the kind of sound Benjamin Clementine is making with this album is Nina Simone. It manages to incorporate all of these influences and yet is like nothing you would have heard before.
Benjamin Clementine is twenty-six years old and grew up in Edmonton, North London. Anglo-French with Ghanian heritage, he grew up in a strictly religious household where he listened to Classic FM a lot (you can certainly tell this as his music is embued with a classical sensibility). A family dispute as a teenager left him homeless and with mental health issues. A move to Paris saw him living rough, staying in hostels when he could and busking to survive. Composing music whenever he could he eventually was discovered by an agent, developed a cult following in Paris and returned to the UK. He claims to have written at least 500 songs with a large number of them being lost because of his circumstances. On this album we have fourteen extremely impressive examples of songwriting, full of ideas and twists and turns together with one track which is repeated as a studio and live performance.
You can tell you are listening to the sounds of a man who has lived outside the mainstream – as you can when you listen to other artists such as Gregory Porter, Bill Withers and Terry Callier, but here the pain seems rawer and the edge seems closer. Listening to Clementine is not, however, in anyway depressing. This is uplifting music for the most part, even when the lyrics are dark. The orchestration and the voice which can go from abject misery, to hope, to playfulness in a few bars is almost spiritual in its effect on the listener .
Vocally, he can resemble Antony Hegarty of Antony & The Johnsons and this act has been obviously influential but if you combine this with the piano style you get much closer to the sound and feel of Nina Simone. The rolling piano sound of “Adios” reminds me of tracks such as “Mississippi Goddam” and the expression and many colours of the voice also suggest Simone. In fact, “Adios” alone is rich in influences. It has a Gallic/European feel and a real sense of the dramatic. Mid-way through there’s a spoken section about Angels, then an angelic operatic interval before coming back to the main song. The whole thing is bonkers but very effective.
The modern classical influences are also much in evidence. Clementine is a big fan of Erik Satie, but the driving repetitive refrains are also very reminiscent of minimalist American composer Philip Glass. This can be picked up on “Adios” , “Condolence” and “Cornerstone”. The Noel Coward reference comes through the old-fashioned Britishness which runs through the lyrics and some of the titles- “Winston Churchill’s Boy”, “Then I Heard A Bachelor Cry” and witticisms such as (in “Nemesis”)
“If chewing was to show you how much I cared I’d probably be wearing dentures by now.”
In a music business where most 26 year olds are singing about going to a club and raising your glass this is like a breath of fresh air.
One of the things I love is the way many of the tracks build, strings and piano combine beautifully and are topped off by those vocals which are first class in terms of range, emotion and phrasing. There’s often a shift mid-way through the track which is certainly unpredictable and often striking. It’s also remarkably catchy after a couple of listens, “London” sounds like a hit single, with a cool hook for a chorus, “St Clementine On Tea And Croissant” combines a couple of chants which will get firmly into your head. This is a plea to be left alone and has more than the hint of bullying around it. On the CD this is combined with primitive percussion (someone hitting part of their body?) and comes across like a menacing playground rhyme.
In a life where pain has been faced it is always great to come across hope and these are the lyrics which stick most firmly in my mind…………………………..
In “Winston Churchill’s boy”; “One day this boy will be fine/You better watch out now that day might be today”. In the sublime Condolence; “Out of absolutely nothing, I, Benjaimin, I was born/so that when I become something one day I’ll remember I came from absolutely nothing”. “Quiver A Little”, a song at one moment so grandiose in its theatricality it could be from “Phantom Of The Opera” with its stage laughter and the next moment strikingly intimate advises us, when hurt by others to “just quiver a little, then burst to laughter (and get back to your stride)”. (This song also contains the best use of mild swear words I can remember hearing).
You will feel you have been put somewhat through the wringer emotion-wise listening to this CD. “The People and I” is one of those songs that can make your eyes well up with tears without really knowing why. There’s just an inherent sadness within it, even though it perks up to a mid-tempo last third. I know there have been comparisons to Edith Piaf and it’s this pulling on the heartstrings which probably explain this.
For the video clip I have chosen a live performance of two songs from the album. “Condolence” and “St. Clementine on Tea And Croissants”. Performed with just a piano, the setting alone is worth a view because it is filmed in the magnificent St Genevieve Library in Paris. This will give you a flavour of the artist, but on the CD the orchestral arrangements give it an added dimension.
If you like to be in the start of something big, give Benjamin Clementine a listen. This might just very well be, in my opinion, the most important British album since Amy Winehouse’s “Back To Black”.
“At Least For Now” is available from Amazon in two editions. I listened to the special limited version which has a couple of extra tracks for £11.99, the standard edition is available for £7.99. It is available as a download for £8.99 and can be streamed from Spotify. In the US site it is $9.99, $7.99 for download.