Benjamin Clementine – I Tell A Fly

I was happy to discover this album last week digging around for new 2017 releases to listen to. It was the genre tags that interested me first – I hadn’t seen many pop / classical / jazz / soul crossover albums before. As it turns out, I Tell A Fly is incredibly unique and special. I haven’t really heard much like this before. It’s a diverse and ever-changing album that blends these different musical styles together, held together by gorgeous arrangements and fantastic vocal performances by Benjamin Clementine. I found something special about each song in the album, and there are highlights particularly in the beginning and end of the album, which play like four and three song suites respectively. It follows then that my only real complaint is about the middle section of the album, where most of the poppier songs live. These are not bad songs, but I felt a little bored after multiple listens in this middle third.

Regardless, the opening and ending suites on this album are really impressive. From “Farewall Sonata” to “Phantom of Aleppoville” is wonderful, and I enjoyed the suite from “By The Ports of Europe” to the final track “Ave Dreamer” as well. The entire album plays front-to-back well, but these two portions of the album seem to particularly be complete thoughts or ideas on their own. Both are full of incredibly enjoyable highlights: the percussion and bass in “God Save the Jungle”, the anthemic hook in “Better Sorry than Asafe”, and essentially all of the sea-shanty and traditional folk inspired “By The Ports of Europe” is gold. I love the attention to detail in building the atmosphere of the songs here and the way they are all written so diversely while remaining loyal to the sound of the album. Benjamin himself sounds great on every track, twisting and turning his voice in order to make it pull whatever emotion he needs out of the often abstract and complex lyrics. Regardless, the arrangements here have to be the highlight. “Farewell Sonata” features a beautiful piano piece, “One Awkward Fish” has almost a breakbeat sounding backdrop, and the percussion is absolutely fantastic throughout. This the core of what makes I Tell A Fly enjoyable – it’s diverse and incredibly unique while remaining immensely pleasant to listen to.

My gripes with the album are subjective and really a matter of taste. “Paris Cor Blimey” drags on too long, and  I can’t help but feel that the “Clair De Lune” piano feels out of place with all the beautiful original piano pieces written into this album surrounding it. “Jupiter” is a fine pop song, but it too feels out of place in an album that is otherwise unapologetically itself; I can imagine “Jupiter” being written and performed by a myriad of other artists. And finally, apart from the interesting arrangement and percussion in “Ode From Joyce” and “One Awkward Fish”, I found these songs to run dry after a few listens. Out of excitement to listen to the final three tracks again, I was often skipping these tracks after I had become familiar. I’m sure many will enjoy these songs, but it was a clear average run of tracks in an album that otherwise really stood out.

I’m still very happy with I Tell A Fly on the whole, and the middle section of tracks here is simply average – they might even be highlights on a weaker album. In many ways that’s really the primary issue I had with them in the context of the album. I can imagine most of the middle part of this album being written by another artist and showing up on a different project, but the opening and closing suites are astonishingly unique. They feature impressive vocal performances, wonderful arrangements, and most of these songs have surprisingly catchy (dare I say) hooks. A lot of the moments in these songs would end up stuck in my head all day.

If you’re looking for an album that sounds like almost nothing else and lives in an abstract world that blends jazz, classical, soul, and pop influence, you can’t skip I Tell A Fly. It’s an album that is not without its faults, but it’s high moments are absolutely magnificent.

5/10

I received a lot of input from my readers that at times I can be too verbose, particularly when it’s clear that I don’t have as much to say about an album. I’m trying a slimmer review format on this album. Let me know what you think!

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