The Slow Reveal
Imagine a mushroom growing in a forest, low to the ground hidden by ferns, fallen leaves and undergrowth. A hiker passes through the forest and happens upon this mushroom. Already having an appreciation for the beauty of nature, the hiker is immediately struck by the vision of this mushroom. But even the hiker’s discovery doesn’t reveal the vast underground network — unseen and impossible to fully understand by anyone other than mycologists — that supports and gives shape to this one small aspect only the person looking hard enough can see. It’s a slow reveal which makes discovering something like a low lying mushroom all the more enjoyable and surprising. Benjamin Clementine has also been a slow reveal, humble, impressive, with his new record At Least for Now, only hinting at what has shaped him.
Clementine’s back story is somewhat mysterious. Anybody who has paid attention has heard about his break from his family in Edmonton, a working-class borough in the Northeast of London, his move to the streets of Paris where he busked and lived the vagabond musician’s life, and his discovery that ultimately landed him on the BBC show, “Later…with Jools Holland”, on the same bill as Paul McCartney. It’s a fairytale story of a talented musician plucked from obscurity, grinding it out in the streets of Paris like a modern-day Edith Piaf. But there is much he is tightlipped about, particularly regarding what happened with his family, Ghanian immigrants who settled in London in an increasingly culturally diverse Edmonton. The mystery is in many ways what has underpinned a remarkable acumen for both poetry and music that makes this record a rarity in these times of over-produced, corporatized pop singers.
Something that sets Clementine and this record apart from other singer/songwriters out there, is his very European story and a European sound. Busking in the streets of Paris is nowhere near the same as busking in the streets of Nashville. And the opening song is an homage to one of the most beloved of Brits, living or otherwise, Winston Churchill. On “Winston Churchill’s Boy,” Clementine repurposes the line “Never in the field of human affection, has so much been given for so few attention,” to tell his own story of a mysterious and apparently troubled upbringing. Clementine’s piano playing is understated and emotional, accented by strings and drums, supporting lyrics some have critiqued as possibly too much, but seem uniquely creative and lend surprising rhythm to the song.
Every song on the record makes use of his voice and piano playing to tell hazy truths about his life and feelings. “Cornerstone,” the song that made him famous, opens with a moody piano melody as he sings in a low register the lines, “I’m alone in a box of stone, they claim to love me but they are lying,” a young man making peace with his youth and upbringing as the foundations for who he now is.
Each song is a showcase for his apparent ease with a grand piano and wordplay. As each song unfolds, some things are revealed, but many questions go unanswered. What happened with his family? How exactly did he become so good at the piano? What role does his Ghanian background play in shaping who he is now? And how did he arrive at bare feet and a trench coat as his onstage persona? Benjamin Clementine is a surprising new voice and there is a lot that remains mysterious about him. That may be the point. The record is one more startling revelation in a slow reveal.