Benjamin Clementine’s second album I Tell a Flyis a record of musical pastiche that’s fractured and wandering but still affecting. It’s most obvious pop song, “Jupiter,” comes roughly halfway through a 45-minute stream of deeply personal and undeniably idiosyncratic music, a heart of sorts at the album’s center. The singer draws an easy caricature of himself: “Ben is an alien/ With extra abilities…/ Somewhere his craft lost control/ Just where he stopped for petrol.”
The first line comes from what Clementine calls a “baffling” addendum to his American visa, identifying him as “an alien of extraordinary abilities.” Like other songs on the album, it plays with the dual meaning of the word, suggesting for the London-native of Ghanian descent a place in the tradition of Afro-futurism while calling to mind the theatricality of Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie. He also establishes a kinship with the many immigrants and refugees who find themselves displaced or unwelcome in the era of Brexit and America’s “Muslim Ban.”
Ben the Alien assures his listeners that he’s “Wishing Americana ease/peace” – “And Britannia too,” as he added during a recent performance on “Later… With Jools Holland” – even though “Back home on Jupiter/ Things are getting harder.” That difficulty of foreign lands and people without a place to call home is something he returns to throughout I Tell a Fly on such tracks as “Awkward Fish,” “By the Ports of Europe,” “God Save the Jungle.”
On “Phantom of Aleppoville,” the first of the album’s singles, encapsulates a different sense of alienness in its distance from more conventional verse/chorus pop. It starts out with a promising, head-bobbing 4/4 groove in rhythm section with piano comping along and a catchy little arpeggio on the harpsichord (yes, harpsichord) before stretching out into something that might remind you of Radiohead before taking a sudden turn into more unconventional territory.
Two (or three) opposing choruses of multi-tracked Benjamin Clementines chant/sing menacingly for a spell – “We won’t leave you alone/ We want you to die/ Oh, leave me/ Oh, love me – before the piano intervenes, dispelling the menace with a rhapsodic, classical/romantic solo that turns out to be both outro and intro. The full band briefly joins in to punctuate the shift, then suddenly we’re in another song altogether: a ballad half sung, half spoken, about “Billy the Bully.” Almost inexplicably, we’ve wandered back into the precincts of what you could call a song, but when it’s settled into something you feel like listening to for a while, the track fades out.
Much of I Tell a Fly shares this type of splintered unconventionality with structures that repeatedly bend away from the familiar to the point that it’s doubtful casual listeners will be up to the challenge. “Awkward Fish,” for instance, has a certain charm but also pushes hard at the boundaries of what’s effective, its disparate elements existing in the same space and time but with radically different moods and timbres that crash up against each other in a way that doesn’t quite cohere.
I Tell a Fly freely mixes elements of pop and rock with cabaret, musical theatre, and even opera as well as the classical and romantic eras of so-called serious music. It fluently and inconspicuously references influences as disparate as Billie Holiday and Led Zeppelin, Gershwin and Hendrix, Queen and Desireless. But without consistency, the center would not hold. Instrumentation helps. Aside from Clementine’s voice the album features nothing more than piano and harpsichord, joined at times by electric bass and drums. The musical vocabulary of each instrument is carefully delimited, with the harpsichord restricting itself to classical, the piano to romanticism plus rock, pop and related styles.
But the true through line is Benjamin Clementine himself, his voice providing the one element that the rest of the album could not exist without. Clementine’s voice is a deep, rich, enthralling sound with its own unique complexity, like the peaty taste of scotch whiskey. His music, like his voice, is distinctive and peculiar. Though odd, it is also undeniably melodic and has a way of capturing and keeping a listener’s attention, despite the challenges it presents in style and structure. He may indeed be an alien, but his music is here to stay.