Rebirth of a Troubadour: At Least for Now by Benjamin Clementine

By Daniel Garrett

Benjamin Clementine, At Least for Now
Produced by Benjamin Clementine and Jonathan Quarmby
Capitol, 2015

Benjamin Sainte Clementine is a find—thoughtful, classical and accessible, rare, a surprising and welcome sensibility, dramatic and meditative.  He explores solitude and spirit, and defies the shallow expectations for charm, rhythm, and sexuality that dominates so much of popular music.  Clementine’s work, heard in the songs on his album At Least for Now, is full of the strong declarations of a young man finding himself and his voice; and it was produced by Clementine with Jonathan Quarmby, an architecture student, keyboardist, and producer of Ephraim Lewis (Skin, 1992) and Finley Quaye (Maverick a Strike, 1997), as well as Eagle Eye Cherry, Des’ree, Ziggy Marley, The Pretenders, and Primal Scream.  Benjamin Sainte Clementine is a citizen of the world, a man who knows London, Paris, and New York, and he has been homeless—he is a British citizen whose parents are from Ghana, and a musician who claims as his own the world’s great music and culture.  His passions give him greater promise than skill alone.  The first on Benjamin Clementine’s At Least for Now is “Winston Churchill’s Boy,” a narrative about a boy who claims a heritage and may be a prophet or just a full-grown man, a monologue that mixes drama and poetry, in which he declares that we make a living by what we get but make a life with what we give.  Clementine is accompanied by Alexis Bossard on drums and Manu Sauvage on bass.  The song “Then I Heard a Bachelor’s Cry,” about a man both beautiful and cruel, knowingly injurious, is theatrical, crazed, funny, and uses an interlude of rhythm and vocal repetition that easily recalls opera.  It is not the only contentious quibbling over ambition and meaning.  Clementine can seem like a cross between Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone, and Seal.  (Clementine has mentioned Anthony and the Johnsons, and Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Pavarotti, Puccini, Erik Satie, and Nina Simone, and Vaughn Williams as musicians he admires.)  “Your cup is full, stop praying for more exposure,” a woman tells a man in the narrative song “London,” which features strings; and a man answers, “I won’t underestimate who I am capable of becoming.”

“He’s hard to miss: a rangy 6ft 3in, cheekbones like violent slashes, hair up and backcombed into a Frank Gehry-esque swoop.  It turns out that the 25-year-old singer-songwriter doesn’t do small talk; he is either forcefully opinionated or dauntingly silent,” wrote writer Tim Lewis of composer, pianist, and singer Benjamin Clementine, with whom Lewis spoke in Edmonton, East London, where Clementine had spent much of his early years (The Guardian, August 9, 2014).  Benjamin Clementine was known then for his early extended play recordings, Cornerstone (2013) and Glorious You (2014); and Clementine had a fantasy of pianos played everywhere in public so anyone could play them.  Clementine spoke of the disparities between East London and Central London, the expense of the poorer East London and yet the goods and services it did not have.  Clementine also recalled for Tim Lewis his first attraction to the piano, a toy piano, when he was six years old: “I saw a girl in my class who had a toy piano.  I asked if I could play and she said no, so I waited till she went for lunch and I took it home.  I played, I heard sounds, I just liked it, I didn’t understand why.  Next day, obviously, I brought it back, after a bit of trouble with my parents.  I got into detention but that was one of the best days of my life.”  Benjamin Clementine would release his At Least for Now album in March 2015 in England, and win the Mercury Prize in November 2015—and take the opportunity to encourage other young people to pursue their ambitions.  Clementine may be seen to have joined a small, significant list of successful black Brits, such as Dotun Adebayo, David Adjaye, John Akomfrah, Amma Asante, David A. Bailey, Oswald Boateng, Ekow Eshun, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Goldie, Stuart Hall, Isaac Julien, Liane La Havas, Bruce Oldfied, Trevor Phillips, and Zadie Smith; and when a musician receives praise not only from Corinne Bailey Rae, but from Paul McCartney with the insistence that Clementine promise to continue making music, something very special is happening.  People who hear Clementine recognize how unique he is—and that he has vision.  “The way Clementine speaks in conversation mimics the rhythmic and anecdotal nature of his songs, which are first and foremost poetry.  His lyrics are easily read without accompanying music, and perhaps resonate even more as poetic verse,” observed Emily McDermott in Interview magazine (March 9, 2016), in an article that recounted Clementine’s East London childhood and leave-taking at age sixteen for a life of adventure, spiritual search, and music, including a stint in Paris.  “When I talk about William Blake, the Bible, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis, it’s part of what I grew up with, part of my culture,” Clementine told Emily McDermott, who spoke with him during his visit to New York.  Clementine has mentioned Carol Ann Duffy, George Orwell, Sylvia Plath, and French lyricists as writers he likes too.

Benjamin Clementine is to be encouraged.  Who knows what else he might do?  “The decision is mine ‘cause the vision is mine,” he states in the composition “Adios,” claiming ambition, difficulty, mistakes, and possibility—ending with a ramble about angels who sing, falsetto and bass; and Clementine himself singing, returning to the song’s frantic refrain.  “St. Clementine-on-Tea-and-Croissants” may be a fantasy—an interrogation, imagined or real, of an irresponsible parent, a questioning that moves beyond polite manners and social ritual.  There is a love-hate relationship in “Nemesis,” a song in which a man finds a lover repeating the patterns of the lover he had left her for; and anyone hearing it can think about the need for enemies—how our definition of others are used to clarify who we are; how our energies are expanded by anger; and in the song there is a call to morality, one that probably will not be answered well.  “The People and I” has a melancholy, instrumental opening—and the whole thing is a bit elegiac, though the lyric suggests a personal covenant, one between artist and audience.

“We always blame other people when things go wrong.  For example, family to friends, you think they’ll stay by your side and you realise they never do.  But that’s life.  You go to the shop and you try to ask for a job and they say no, and then you blame society.  You keep on blaming. You don’t stop blaming people.  That’s a sign of weakness, I’ve learned,” Benjamin Clementine told The Guardian (August 2014), suggesting his own sensitivity, honesty, rigor.  In the July 29, 2015 New York Times critic Nate Chinen declared, “At Least for Now is his declaration of selfhood, an album very much about the act of becoming, with a tightrope balance of dramatic artifice and diaristic detail.  ‘I’m sending my condolences to insecurities,’ Mr. Clementine sings on ‘Condolence’ a bittersweet anthem in which he also reflects on his own birth, declaring: ‘So when I become someone one day / I will always remember that I came from nothing.’”  Nate Chinen describes Clementine voice as being bladelike.  Clementine as narrator counsels someone not to be ashamed of a feeling in “Condolence,” recommending honesty, although this, too, in a song of declamation that could have more charm or variety, seems part of another contentious relationship.  “Condolence” connects the creation of the world with one person’s life—and suddenly the difficult relationships in this and other songs seems likely less to be merely with individuals but with society at large (trouble with family has inaugurated trouble with the world).  Loneliness and self-doubt and hope interrupt contemplation and memory of distant, even hostile relationships in “Cornerstone.”  The last two songs suggest genuine resolution.  The composition “Quiver a Little,” a self-examination of a man who feels alone in society, a man whose humor does not exorcise a dour aspect, has, near the end, a surprising blues beat—which adds something familiar, something shared as well as thoughtfully sad.  The last song, “Gone,” notes changes in self and world, from childhood to maturity, referring to people one used to know, people whom have married or died, and places that are gone.

Daniel Garrett has written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today, as well as The Compulsive Reader.