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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Album review: Clementine’s first studio album is loud and proud

This debut album marks the arrival of a very singular talent - raw and real, joyous and melancholy, but never less than profound.
British singer and songwriter Benjamin Clementine at Cannes Film Festival. Anne-Christine Poujoulat / AFP
British singer and songwriter Benjamin Clementine at Cannes Film Festival. Anne-Christine Poujoulat / AFP

At Least For Now

Benjamin Clementine

(Virgin EMI)

Five stars

If you don’t know Benjamin Clementine, you should. He possesses one of the most distinctive voices of his generation. At Least For Now ranks easily among the most compelling debuts we are likely to hear this year.

The once-homeless 26-year-old British singer, songwriter, pianist and poet has been turning important heads for close to two years now. His impassioned live shows – typically performed barefoot, dressed all in black – have attracted influential fans including Björk, David Byrne and Paul McCartney.

Released in his home country in March, At Least For Now hit shelves in the United States last Friday, on July 31. The secret may finally be out.

Clementine’s singular artistic voice relies on five distinct gifts. A self-taught pianist, musically, Clementine is a restless searcher, switching from lush minor chords to rolling, restless gallops in a way that has been compared to Nina Simone. The sonata-like Condolence features elegant, Erik Satie-esque patterns swelling tenderly over a six-minute cresting catharsis.

As a composer and visionary, Clementine is an omnivorous magpie. His piano work typically backed minimally by strings and occasional electronic beats, Clementine’s compositions are both tightly wound mini-operas and freewheeling exorcisms.

Adios begins as a bleak, vaudeville vamp in waltz time, before breaking into a brief spoken-word passage, and a sparse, neoclassical bridge.

As a lyricist and poet, Clemantine is insightful and unafraid. He describes himself as an “expressionist” – autobiographical lyrics scatter and spill in jagged rhythms.

Opener Winston Churchill’s Boy bravely reimagines the legendary British prime minister’s wartime speech: “Never in the field of human affection/Had so much been given for so few attention.”

Clementine notably spent three years busking and gigging in bars in Paris, and the sense of shouting above a crowd to be heard is still evident in his attuned sense of musical theatre.

St-Clementine-On-Tea-And-Croissants, a brief call and response over a marching beat, is a nugget of street theatre on record.

What hits hardest however is the versatile gift of Clementine’s voice. Whether offering spoken confessions, off-kilter raps or the searing operatic exaltations that mark the climax of many performances, Clementine never sounds more than a few metres away, in possession of an urgent lesson to be implanted into the soul of the listener.

When, on London, he bellows “London, London, London is calling you”, one feels the city’s dirty, throbbing streets ­sounding a wailing klaxon of invitation. One imagines a cascading tear when, on ­Cornerstone, Clementine ­repeats “I’ve been lonely, in a box of my own”.

It’s that realness that marks Clementine’s work as truly special. His empathetic delivery is both joyous and melancholy, unnervingly humane but never less than profound.

The outlandish comparisons to the greats – Simone, Edith Piaf – ring true precisely because, just as one can imagine the wretched lives of those talents in their work, one hears Clementine’s singular struggles in every note of his music.