“An alien with extraordinary abilities”. A peculiar description to be found on an American visa. A British musician who’s voice seemed out-of-this-world on his Mercury Prize-winning debut found this on his legal ticket to the United States.
With all the xenophobic immigration rules presently at Trump-borders, seeing foreigners as dissimilar aliens seems to encapsulate the current state of mind in geopolitics. In it’s wild, uncompromising production and lyrical perspective, it also appears to sum the recent America-visitor Benjamin Clementine’s second album I Tell A Fly.
Spending years as a penniless wanderer in Paris struggling to live financially, mentally and domestically – a back story that coloured the content on his engaging first effort At Least For Now – and a childhood feeling like an outcast for his precocious appearance and interests – Benjamin Clementine saw himself as an alien way before the American Visa department spelled it out so bluntly. Furthermore, from the album sleeve of his new release, featuring a compass, it appears that the 28-year-old still feels lost.
On the self-produced I Tell A Fly, the Londoner impressively uses different wordplay techniques and narratives to illustrate the feeling of being an alien in this world. On the third single and perhaps most straightforward track on the new LP ‘Jupiter’, he uses a touch of science-fiction humour and third person speaking to exaggerate being labelled as an alien: “Ben’s an alien passing by, wishing everyone be. Somewhere his craft lost control. Guess where he stopped for petrol.”
On a satirical observation on patriotism ‘God Save The Jungle‘, Clementine uses the situation of refugees in Calais as an euphemism for apathy towards foreign invaders: “Old alien in foreign lands again, you better beat it and go back home.” While on ‘Better Sorry Than A Safe’ and ‘Ave Dreamer’, Clementine writes under the guise of two curious flies hovering over the world, of which also explains the album’s title ‘I Tell A Fly’. “What will you want to be? Well, I’ll be a dragonfly. Said the bumblebee”, Clementine surprisingly narrates like a children’s storybook on the latter.
There’s also commentary on America on ‘Ode for Joyce’ (a play-on Beethoven’s ‘Ode for Joy’) – a place of which Clementine spent a lot of in 2016, his second home of France on the tongue-twistering Carry-On-sounding ‘Paris, Cor Blimey’, and also a statement on universal bullying on ‘Phantom of Aleppoville’ which compares the terrorising in Syria with common playground intimidation in Western schools.
Although it appears to demonstrate an album that’s more outward looking than just the first record’s tale of introspective and esoteric woe, Benjamin Clementine himself suffered a lot of bullying as a schoolboy, therefore pleads such as “Oh love me, love me, leave me alone,” speak of experience.
The most striking and impactful thing about I Tell A Fly though is it’s musical production choices. He’s taken his interest in classical music further by adding a harpsichord to sound like he’s time-travelled to an Elizabethan century and had the audacity to borrow muse Claude Debussy‘s signature piece ‘Claude De Lune’.
He’s taken his emotive and multi-dimensional voice further by multiplying layers of his voice to sound like shadowy chanting witch hunters, added malfunctioning oscillation techniques for first time (courtesy of Damon Albarn giving him a Rhodes Chroma synthesizer) and created unorthodox compositions that eccentrically change direction. This gives an unsettling circus-like rock opera that’s not always enjoyable and therefore comparable to the oddity of Efterklang’s Leaves: The Colour of Falling from last year.
Rather than exploit the financial opportunities of having an accolade-paraded debut by churning out a cleaner version of the same product, he’s risked alienating himself by increasing his anti-pop traits further and that is something that’s very admirable and brave. Perhaps a trait that earned him the Mercury Prize award in the first place.