Benjamin Clementine is nowhere close to done innovating. On I Tell a Fly, we see the Mercury Prize winner experiment more than on his 2015 debut, connecting disparate influences from Baroque era music all the way up to modern pop art. That being said, it’s hard to classify what I Tell a Fly really is. Bridging so many styles and influences, the atmosphere shifts from the operatic to the African tribal down to meditative soliloquy.
While Clementine is at heart a piano singer-songwriter, on his most recent album, harpsichord emerges dominant. But it comes with some cognitive dissonance, though, because the last time most people have heard its metallic twang was high school music class. And that’s only the start, because Clementine spends the whole 45 minute album blending this extreme with modern sounds and spacy progressions. On “Better Sorry than Safe,” the sound of a dying Ms. Pac-Man is mixed between the Baroque instrument.
What remains unchanged is his uncanny ability to both explode out of nowhere and seamlessly distill high-intensity moments into subdued piano interludes. Take “Phantom of Aleppoville,” the album’s fourth track. Clementine desperately yearns, “Oh leave me / Oh leave me / Leave me” between possessive, tribal hisses, right before fracturing the track into piano, hummed vocals and white space.
And these transitions are not occurring over the stretch of the album, but rather over single tracks. In effect, the album feels closer to a delicately arranged series of movements than anything else. Here, we see Clementine better reflect classical song structure than modern composition. Even still, accessibility is not lost.
As a whole, the album stretches upward. He opens “Paris Cor Blimey” with the ominous “Pandemonium, whoa / Pandemonium / Whoa.” The music is momentous, almost apocalyptic. The harpsichord spells doom.
Between the stretches of pure instrumentals, Clementine shifts sporadically between vocal styles. Varying pitch, tone and warmth, among other things, Benjamin Clementine’s delivery is as unique as ever. Just when one expects a forceful staccato, he rounds out his vowels and stretches them into the next line.
At points, his lyrics are almost incomprehensible, half-murmured, half crooned. Similar to Young Thug’s innovation, he takes advantage of these moments and finds those internal melodies that traditional song would obfuscate. In these moments, his voice is closer to an instrument than it is a medium for language. Yet, what is so intriguing in these moments is how pushes into exciting, unexplored spaces while still rooting himself in classical traditions.
I Tell a Fly is also intriguing from a technical standpoint. The soundstage is continually manipulated, vocals and instruments alternating between center stage and fading into the back. Through it all, Clementine’s vocals harmonize with either his own or with backing singers. Generating that same quasi-gospel effect that D’Angelo pioneered, the album feels massive. Especially in those moments where Clementine absolutely belts it, I Tell a Fly is remarkable.
“Phantom of Aleppoville” is the most hip-hop influenced section of the album, the Spanish influenced strings could be easily mistaken for a Miseducation of Lauryn Hill B-Side. Meanwhile, “One Awkward Fish” is the most Drum & Bass / Garage influenced track on the album. The dampened kick / snare feels straight out the club. The groovy baseline makes contact with early Jungle. Yet, like the rest of this album, the track’s foundation is stripped down and meshed into something larger: in this case, echoing, choir music.
Now, when we speak of a musician having “range” we usually associate to singers who can traverse six octaves or multi-instrumentalist’s with equipment taped to every inch of their bodies. Yet, what Clementine shows us in his “range” is his manipulation of auditory space. Just as easily as I Tell a Fly explodes and oversaturates into the gargantuan, it crystallizes into the minimal.
Which is ultimately I Tell a Fly’s strength. Here, Benjamin Clementine simultaneously extends across so many discourses that it’s hard to trace his influences and aspirations. Avant-garde has long been about borrowing from the past and reinterpreting it to as a response to the present. Between the swaths of chamber pop to Baroque sonatas to U.K. dance, Clementine continues his emergence as one of the defining singer-songwriters in the U.K. right now.