I Tell A Fly
Take a stunning exploration of bullying in Benjamin Clementine’s powerful ‘I Tell A Fly’
By Nathan Leigh
October 17, 2017
There are certain legendary periods of art when the weirdos win, and for one brief magical second, it feels like anything is possible. Psychedelia in 1967-68, punk and hip-hop in 77, alt rock in 92-94, and I want to add to the list whatever is happening right now.
Hearing Benjamin Clementine’s stripped down and hauntingly beautiful debut Cornerstone EP back in 2012, how gloriously bizarre I Tell A Fly would be was unthinkable.
Following a trajectory similar to both Tom Waits and Nina Simone from showtune-inflected piano ballads to masterfully composed idiosyncratic songs that transcend definition or genre, Clementine’s latest album finds the artist on a path without rules, where anything is possible.
Opening with “Farewell Sonata,” Clementine quickly subverts himself, interrupting the classical piano with sped up harpsichord and mutated vocals. “God Save The Jungle” is one of the most “traditional” pop songs on the record and still finds time for huge flights of fancy amid his ode to the government-overlooked parts of London and Calais. The Syrian refugee crisis takes center stage on many of the songs. “Better Sorry Than a Safe” and “Phantom of Aleppoville” are the most explicit, but references cut throughout, particularly on the album highlight “By the Ports of Europe.”
Reportedly, the album was intended to explore bullying. The plight of the outsider is explored in abstract paintings like “Jupiter” and “One Awkward Fish,” songs detailing the mistreatment of individuals to contrast songs about the cruelty of entire societies.
“They say you must become an animal or the animal to protect us—the good good animals—and so we go to war” from “Quintessence” is his blasé anti-mission statement. How easily people slip into being bullies without giving it a second thought is glimpsed throughout Clementine’s expressionistic melodies and sound collages. It is a remarkably profound and human message embedded within one of the weirdest damn records to come out on a major label in years (decades maybe even).
With I Tell A Fly, Benjamin Clementine joins artists like Thundercat, Moses Sumney, and Sampha in ushering in a new era of abstract art-pop that engages as deeply with social consciousness as it does with artistic experimentation.
In the 5 years since Cornerstone, Clementine has evolved from a balladeer with a unique voice to one of the most unique voices of a generation. Where he goes 5 years from now is anyone’s guess, but there’s no question it’ll be remarkable.