“I Tell a Fly feels like a concept album, although one about three hundred years too late…” Asher Breuer-Weil reviews the latest album from Mercury Award winning musician Benjamin Clementine.
“I wrote this album as a play. It was a tale of two flies traveling, and they discovered so many things. They discovered new animals that they’d never seen before – and then one left the other.” This is how Benjamin Clementine, winner of the 2015 Mercury prize, explains his new album. If this isn’t bizarre enough in itself, wait till you listen to the actual music. I Tell a Fly feels like a concept album, although one about three hundred years too late.
Ignoring the tale of the flies that Clementine describes, the real focus of this album is on the ongoing refugee crisis. Throughout the 45 minutes the album lasts, Clementine details the Jungles of Calais, the feeling of being an alien, alienated and bullied, and the flaws of those in charge:
“Welcome to jungle, dear
Where lorries are chariots, railways are stairways,
Stairways to heaven.
You better beat it and go back home
Cause if they find you they will kill you.”
Yet although the current of the album is strong, it’s still hard to decipher. Clementine revels in wordplay and loose imagery, challenging the listener to delve deep into the heart of his lyrical intent. His story of the inquisitive flies pervades the songs, juxtaposing the imagery of fragility, innocence and love with the chaos surrounding it.
The instrumentation traces similar juxtapositions. On the first track alone – ‘Farewell Sonata’ – we get an indication of where the album will go sonically. It opens with an eerie reverb-heavy echoing noise, followed by a slow, beautiful piano-riff, something out of Debussy or Ravel’s canon, before being pierced midway through by the sound of sharp distorted harpsichords and intense drumming, with a final to return to the previous piano. The track is remarkably unsettling, lulling you into a false sense of security and then hitting you with a cacophony of strange and uneasy noises.
‘Phantom of Aleppoville’, a few tracks afterwards, follows suit. It almost contains three or four songs in one; there’s more piano, more harpsichords, more drums, and an even broader range of vocals on show by Clementine, sounding somehow like Nina Simone and Nick Cave in the same song.
Watch the video for ‘Phantom Of Aleppoville here:
This is both where the album succeeds and fails. Clementine is really pushing boundaries with I Tell a Fly, the structure of the songs being almost non-existent and the vocals being so strangely varied. The range of instruments used are scarcely believable, with some of the album sounding straight of the 1700’s, and yet at times also sounding hyper-modern, utilizing novel synths and drum machines.
It’s music that keeps you guessing, keeps you on the edge of your seat, but also that probably keeps you from coming back to it. The message that Clementine is trying to convey is for the most part lost in the idiosyncrasy of the music. This is taking for granted that you’ve even had the patience to listen through all eleven baffling tracks.
BBC 6 Music made I Tell A Fly yesterday’s album of the day:
— BBC Radio 6 Music (@BBC6Music) October 5, 2017
The standout songs are no doubt the ones with structure. ‘God Save the Jungle’, ‘Jupiter’ and ‘Quintessence’ are all well-written, well-performed songs, free from the creative overload that Clementine imposes on most of the other tracks, yet still weird enough to fit the mould of the album.
Clementine might be more successful however, if he reigned in this creativity a little, somehow traversing the middle-ground between his previous At Least For Now, and this.
Did you enjoy this album? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.