Benjamin Clementine - At Least For Now (2015)

Benjamin Clementine
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At 16 years old, Benjamin Clementine found himself homeless in Camden, England, and then homeless in Paris, in order to live away from his parents, who wanted him to be a lawyer. Clementine won the Mercury Prize in November for his debut album At Least For Now, when only a few years ago he used to sleep on the Paris metro. He even slept in doorways in the dead of winter. He met two French producers while on the metro and, as if a rags to riches fairytale, it is there that his now very successful soul singing career began.

At 16 years old, Benjamin Clementine found himself homeless in Camden, England, and then homeless in Paris, in order to live away from his parents, who wanted him to be a lawyer. Clementine won the Mercury Prize in November for his debut album At Least For Now, when only a few years ago he used to sleep on the Paris metro. He even slept in doorways in the dead of winter. He met two French producers while on the metro and, as if a rags to riches fairytale, it is there that his now very successful soul singing career began.

Clementine was born to Ghanaian parents in England. He was a quiet child who loved poetry. He taught himself how to play the drums, the piano and the guitar, and all that learning comes to fruition on At Least For Now, his first album. His life experiences up to now obviously haunt him, and those experiences are clearly expressed on this disc. The album is sad and theatrical in either a biographical or an autobiographical way -- he never tells us who he is singing about. Sometimes it feels as if his songs are either bleeding or crying, like confessions about a boy’s life and about drinking. These confessions coupled with great musical direction make for an album that has the ability to seriously move a listener.

At Least For Now is 11 tracks of honesty composed into great songs that feature engaging and outstanding piano playing and crooning. Lyrically, the album appears to draw on Clementine’s boyhood experiences, often with sad overtones of separation and alienation. When we hear a deep male voice sing where is your son?  on “St Clementine On Tea and Croissants” or the lyricsWhere is your family? / where are your loved ones? on “Winston Churchill’s Boy,” we hear of the longing of a young man (Clementine left his parents’ house at age 16), who is later steeled with line, “one day this boy will stand.”

Throughout the disc, the protagonist “boy” is put through life shaping experiences where there is no solution to the problem presented. This boy simply goes through them. And Clementine asks us to plunge with the boy. His songs about this boy are not easy to sing along to though -- the piano is often more melodic than Clementine’s vocals – but such examples as “London” and “Cornerstone” are standouts that are easy to feel.

Soul music has very specific origins: it was first the urban music of people who chose to subscribe to a certain philosophy of music that had everything to do with goodness and little to do with recklessly seeking gain or practicing Machiavellian duplicity. This philosophy of music was first rooted in Christian theology. Soul remains a product of unbelievable commitment to higher principle. Clementine was born in a society that has always had a profound love for the music of black people that has come out of the South, from the blues to rock and roll to soul music. It is a society that this country once belonged to and perhaps the English identity themselves with now. They take the genres seriously and do them justice. At Least For Now does the soul tradition’s musical and philosophical tradition justice all the while expressing Clementine’s individuality very well. Given that this disc is his very first album, Benjamin Clementine is an artist from whom we should expect a lot in the coming years.

By Emmanuel Adolf Alzuphar

Emmanuel Adolf Alzuphar is a free lance music critic

 
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