Benjamin Clementine - I Tell a Fly Album Review
Referring to a work of art as “challenging” is a descriptor the music critic does not give lightly. It can frighten away listeners who may have otherwise enjoyed the album or anger impassioned fans who connect immediately and readily with it. Nevertheless, to label I Tell a Fly, the sophomore release from Mercury Prize-winning UK artist Benjamin Clementine, as anything but challenging is to do it a disservice. Both uncompromising in his unique musical style and astute in the worldly observations he delivers through cryptic metaphors, Clementine has come through with a record that is unabashedly his own. Where many artists falter with attempts to pursue the avant-garde, Clementine's ability to stay true to his vision keeps I Tell a Fly steadfast towards capturing its rich musical and thematic concepts with passion and allure.
Clementine anchors the musical soundscape of the album in the keys of his piano, newly adopted harpsichord and touches of light synths. These three distinct instruments trade off and work off of each other throughout almost every track, giving the album a simultaneously classical, modern and progressive sound at any given moment. Clementine is quick to weave warm melodic lines with one before bringing in another to transform the track by taking it in unpredictable sonic direction. That’s not to say the music here is disorienting, but rather composed in a maze-like structure. Clementine rarely offers moments of musical resolution, instead continually leaving the listener mesmerized as they travel deeper into the complexity of the album throughout its runtime. The most straightforward tracks “By The Ports of Europe” and “Quintessence” find themselves toward the end of the album as the third and second-to-last tracks on the album, though only acting as an artificial life preserver before the album’s closer “Ave Dreamer” spirals out on a climactic and spaced-out finish.
These complex compositions reflect the tribulations of the subjects of Clementine’s lyrics, bridged together by his theatric and raw vocals delivered here with the same passion as a live performance. I Tell a Fly looks at the world in the context of differences, of what it means to be alien to others and experience that which is alien to us. “God Save The Jungle” and “Phantom of Aleppoville” best captures this dynamic, the former illustrating the first world’s disregarding view of Middle Eastern refugee camps as lawless jungles, while the later provides an empathetic olive branch into understanding the tragedy of children in war-torn Aleppo.
Other moments throughout the album, while still potent in metaphors and thematic content, find themselves more difficult to decipher. It is these moments where most listeners may find Clementine’s album difficult to engage with. Slowly, over multiple listens, these less apparent metaphors reveal themselves, though even those that approach the album from a purely analytical perspective will find themselves having to make some reaching assumptions before seeking further explanation. Clementine has offered insight and meaning for the more abstract imagery on the album, describing the album as a theatrical narration of two flies traveling the world and seeing it through an alien’s eyes. After reading up on this context, Clementine’s thoughtful metaphors bloom, but with only the content of the album as the listener’s context, it can be a burden to decipher the more abstract ones.
That’s not to say every lyric is hiding more than its literal meaning. The album's overarching themes reverberate firmly throughout the 11 tracks, but individual moments can fail to resonate. I Tell a Fly asks the listener to draw these connections for themselves, which will in turn leave the album’s audience divided.
Regardless of this shortcoming, Clementine has crafted an album dense with musical eccentricities and lyrical themes. I Tell a Fly captures the alienation so many feel in today's divided world with its alien compositions. While it may not be an album that’s interested in appealing to the masses, it's an album that is of the masses that shares an important perspective for today’s world. I Tell a Fly makes a bold statement and does so with bravado.
Chandler Copenheaver is a senior majoring in public relation. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.