Search This Blog

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Benjamin Clementine: At Least For Now


1) Winston Churchill's Boy; 2) Then I Heard A Bachelor's Cry; 3) London; 4) Adios; 5) St.-Clementine-On-Tea-And-Croissants; 6) Nemesis; 7) The People And I; 8) Condolence; 9) Cornerstone; 10) Quiver A Little; 11) Gone.

I suppose that the circle of people who have actually heard about Benjamin Clementine remains fairly small these days — but so many of those who have heard about him seem to have fallen under a potent magic spell that the amount of adulation is almost unsettling. You can easily get a taste of it on his Wikipedia page: how he suffered bullying at school, how he spent all his days reading books and memorizing archaic words, how he spent years busking on Paris streets and building up his self-confidence, how he injured his elbow when shooting a video in 2014, and how he cut his finger open but still went on playing at a recent concert (Pete Townshend, eat your heart out — nobody threw you any tissues from the audience!). The endless gushing from fans and critics alike almost makes you wonder if it is not all a matter of political correctness: after all, here might be just the figure that highbrow liberal intellectuals have been desperately looking for all these past years — the Genuinely Intellectual Black Musical Artist, building upon the founda­tions of True Culture, rather than the usual smelly hip-hopper. He may be a shitty poseur for all we care, but as long as he's banging the piano, singing an actual vocal melody, and paraphrasing Winston Churchill, he's okay, right? The big black hope for the little white man.

Well, you know what? I am certainly not the one to bow down before the altar of PC, but I sincere­ly like this guy... at least for now, which, incidentally, happens to be the title of his first LP (so if the second one turns out to be a piece of shit, at least he's got some sort of cop-out). As far as the touchy racial issue is concerned, Benjamin Clementine can be excused out of it: he was born in London, he was largely raised on English poetry, he had most of his cultural upbringing in France, and although his voice is certainly «black», and his playing and singing style are seriously influ­enced by jazz and soul music, none of his songs are specifically «African» (only recently, he chided an unfortunate interviewer for mentioning the «big African choruses» of his songs, by correctly re­torting that «African chorus» makes about as much sense as an «English chorus»). He is most typically compared to Nina Simone these days, almost as if he were her male reincarna­tion; these comparisons do make sense, but Clementine is not a powerhouse like Nina — his songs may meander and ramble like Nina's, to some degree, yet he mostly gets by by means of subtlety and symbolism rather than fire and mesmerism.

Although Clementine's compositions usually follow the verse-(bridge)-chorus structure, his free-form vocal modulation and complex phrasing, where the melody often has to fit the lyrics rather than vice versa, bring him closer to experimental vocal jazz; on the other hand, some of the tracks clearly reveal a big French influence — all those years of Paris busking clearly left an imprint, as sometimes he comes off as an exquisite English reply to Jacques Brel. His piano playing is never particularly virtuosic, but, like Nina, he knows how to use the instrument well: the very first chords of ʽWinston Churchill's Boyʼ, beethovenly melancholic and contemplative, might make you pay attention before the vocals even come in, and his little waltz intros and disturbingly flapped arpeggios are light, tasteful, and, as hard as it is to justify this, sound like the real thing compared to, say, Alicia Keys or so many other piano-based singer-songwriters who either just directly rip off the classical composers they practiced in school or rely on the supreme might of the bombastic power chord (because, you know, the harder you bang your piano, the stronger it resonates in your followers' young hearts).

Benjamin's backing band is small (just a basic drums-and-bass rhythm section), but the album does not sound stripped down at all: they play loud and forceful enough to give the songs an epic feel whenever necessary, and when that happens to be not enough, we have an uncredited string section come in for extra support. Note that there is no guitar whatsoever — and, although elec­tronic keyboards are used on a couple of tracks, no signs of kowtowing to the electronic craze, either, which is not necessarily a plus in general, but is a sign of class for this album in particular: Benjamin clearly knows what he needs to construct his atmosphere, and he is not pandering to anybody else's tastes so as to compromise it.

Of course, that atmosphere is nothing particularly new — we all know the average mindset of the lonesome singer-songwriter, a deeply sensitive and vulnerable soul caught up in a cruel and care­less world. "I am alone in a box of stone / They claim they loved me but they're all lying" (ʽCor­nerstoneʼ) — one of the more revealing (and, some might say, more corny) lines in his usually more inscrutable poetry — is a good example, and somehow, when he delivers it, I do not get the proverbial intuitive «spoiled young brat» feeling. Maybe it is some hidden property of his voice, a weird synthesis of the black soul singer with the Europop lonesome-romantic tradition that stret­ches all the way from Bryan Ferry to Antony Hegarty. Maybe it is the 19th-century inspired piano sonata bits. Maybe it is simply the context, an unusual freshness of the musical approach, all the more weird because it is so deeply rooted in the past rather than looking to the future. Most like­ly, it's a combination of all that and then some.

Benjamin sings almost exclusively about himself, consciously refraining from any sweeping social statements — this, by the way, is perhaps his biggest difference from the ever-righteous Nina Simone — and that may be both his biggest advantage and his biggest flaw: advantage, be­cause that way he can vouch for the utmost sincerity and honesty of every song and we cannot do anything about it, and flaw, because it might give rise to accusations of narcissism and unde­served self-aggrandizing. The very first song, ʽWinston Churchill's Boyʼ, announces his arrival in humbly grand fashion: "One day this boy will be fine / Better watch out now, this day might be today!", along with subtle complaints about parental and social pressures. But hey, the good thing about music is that music can be about anyone — even if you think that the gentleman might sometimes be overstating his issues, as long as he has the guts, chops, and inspiration to overstate them, there will always be people in this world to whom these issues might be even more relevant than to himself. Why, who knows? "this boy" might even be you!

Although most of the songs set pretty much the same melancholic-meandering mood, I would not exactly call them «hookless» in any sense of the word — rather, Clementine is just busy spinning passionate, slightly theatrical, monologs that have their logical developments and climactic mo­ments. "London, London, London is calling you" (ʽLondonʼ), for instance, is one such moment, or the insistent "the decision is mine, the decision is mine" bit on ʽAdiosʼ, or the ecstatic "Neme­sis is a matter of karma!" coda of ʽNemesisʼ (where he shows off his ability to link Greek and Indian philosophy in a single sentence), or the way that the structurally unremarkable dramatic monolog of ʽQuiver A Littleʼ still manages to find a perfect resolution as the singer decides to "quiver a little — then burst in laughter" at his discovery of people's hypocrisy. All these little points hit hard, though sometimes not upon first listen.

Speaking of flaws, a bit of a sense of humor couldn't have hurt: Benjamin is no stranger to irony and sarcasm (the song title ʽWinston Churchill's Boyʼ alone proves that), but the only genuinely «humorous» bit on the album is the brief a cappella interlude ʽSt.-Clementine-On-Tea-And-Croissantsʼ, poking a bit of fun at Benjamin's penniless existence in Paris — and even that one is still tied to the issue of parental relationships ("where is your son, where did he go?"). This is no big problem for the album as such, but it might be a warning for the future: one-sidedness and monotonousness is one of the most usual and irritating problems about even the super-talented artists of today, and experience shows that it tends to get worse with time unless you pay some serious attention to it, so "this boy" really has to watch it.

Even so, even if At Least For Now happens to become Clementine's first-and-best record and the man's talents turn out to be insufficient to expand on it, this here is one LP that fully deserved its Mercury Prize (a far more tasteful award these years than the Ed Sheeran-loving, Mumford-&-sons-craving Brits). Because even if you happen not to be emotionally moved by it — and this is a fair enough possibility, given that Clementine's subtlety can be easily mistaken for boredom — there is no denying his unusual craft, his vocal gift, his literacy, and his odd concoction of Euro­pean and American influ­ences. If he has not fully succeeded in forging his own musical genre from those influences (and some might say that he has), it is probably not his fault — more like the fault of his parents who conceived him about 20-30 years too late for that. If he has been overrated by gushing musical critics for socio-racial reasons (and many might say that he has not), it is not his fault either — more like, again, the fault of his parents who conceived him about 20-30 years too early, before the modern world has completed its next cycle of population adjustment. So just make a bit of a chronological correction here, and join me in this whole-hearted thumbs up rating.

1 comment:

  1. Soon, oh so soon, this will be dated as your favorite 86/87 album. Too affectionate, too many artificial rhythms, too many sweet piano, too plastic.