Benjamin Clementine is an English singer, composer, and poet, who swiftly gained a following with his acclaimed 2015 album At Least for Now. Many critics hailed the unique voice and style of Clementine, often referring to his songs as soulful and overflowing with emotion. His efforts in 2015 eventually earned him a Mercury Prize, spring boarding his career and cutting a swath into the musical mainstream, particularly in the UK. Trippy acoustic percussion over classical piano laid down the foundation on which Clementine sang in his now-recognizable, stately way. Singles like “Condolence” and “London” gained popularity within the singer/songwriter crowd, winning over fans with his fervent and charismatic vocal performances. When hearing Benjamin sing, it’s easy to imagine a man holding a roll of parchment, clad in Victorian Era dressings, passionately proclaiming his poetry to Old London’s citizens, acting it out as the pass through the market square. Benjamin’s music has always had an almost historical tone to it, mostly because of his voice and the way he carries his words over the music.
I Tell a Fly sees a continuation of his usual vocal approach, this time occasionally morphing and warping it with effects at an attempt to broaden his sound. His instrumentation, however, has seen the most obvious directional change. Venturing more into the world of electronics than previously before, Clementine’s new addition to his style can come off as a little forced, and oftentimes over-theatrical. The electronics fail to accent the songs’ strengths, but instead limps them along like a crutch, until they eventually putter into a silence. That isn’t to say the songs are not engaging and well written. It just sadly feels like Benjamin convinced himself that these fresh sounds would enrich the feel of the album, when in reality it has the potential to make a serious and well-crafted song sound like a silly, tired merry-go-round. While Clementine warrants applaud for forging his own trail in the singer/songwriter world, it can end up sounding more like clumsy hacking with a dull machete rather than striding with subtle grace. The variety within the instrumentation can sometimes feel like it was accomplished with a checklist, rather than being included for the music’s best interest.
Where his first album felt like a man hunched over a piano, I Tell a Fly takes ‘performance’ to whole new level, often feeling like an audiobook for a Moulin Rouge! stage play.
Overall, an attempt at sparkled, charming oddness makes I Tell a Fly feel more coordinated than inspired, a quality that’s always haunted Clementine’s work. Fortunately though, it comes across as a lot more tolerable this time around, and ends up feeling like an overall success.