11. Benjamin Clementine: And I Have Been

I first heard Benjamin Clementine the night his debut album, At Least For Now, won the Mercury Prize. Until that 2015 show, this noble, angular, singer-songwriter had flown under my radar. I wasn’t alone; it seemed that few folk were familiar with his work. As is standard procedure at the Mercury, each artist is invited to play a track from their nominated album before the big reveal. When it was his turn, Clementine confidently took position at a highly polished grand piano and stunned the audience with his composition, Cornerstone. Within the first few bars, I found myself in his corner. Ultimately, justice was done. Benjamin Clementine won and in doing so perhaps created the final seminal moment in Mercury history. Clementine was the last truly unique artist to win that prize; every subsequent winner would have sat comfortably around the Brit Award table. 

Understatedly, he followed At Least For Now with 2017’s I Tell A Fly. With deep regret, I must confess that it was a release that completely passed me by. I still feel suitably guilty. Now, five years later, I can assuage that sin, because in October this year, I was all over Clementine’s release like the Moroccan midfield on the Spanish. 

Before summarising And I Have Been, it is worth recounting the London-born Clementine’s back story, because it tells us much about the man. Those outstanding piano skills that he possesses are self-taught, learned through hours of listening to classical music on the radio. As a young man, he took himself off to Paris, a city where true virtuosity is appreciated. Except it wasn’t. To ensure that his talent found an audience, any audience, Clementine turned to busking, although I have often wondered quite how he was able to transport his piano around. More gravely, for a spell during his Parisian stay, he was homeless. 

His fortunes were transformed however, when he relocated back to his home city. At Least For Now was released and the rest is, as they say, history. To his eternal credit, that triumph did not change him. He has continued to be true to his art and has never comprised, never chased the easy money. The downside of such a career decision, of course, is that he remains relatively unknown, which is something of a crime.

Let us turn to 2022’s And I Have Been, because it is an extraordinary album, a quite thrilling listen. Of course, the most striking aspect about Benjamin Clementine is always that voice. Few others are so resonant, so dramatic. It will stop you in your tracks. Augmenting that is an incredible songwriting ability, one that is capable of crafting songs that transfix you as they deviate and surprise. Musically, these compositions are primarily composed around Clementine’s sublime piano playing, often accompanied by sweeping strings and understated percussion. Less is more.

Thanks to that combination of factors, we are gifted with this collection of twelve elegant, beautifully constructed, jaw-dropping songs. Genesis is built around a sumptuous waltz, Gypsy BC a memorable melody. On Atonement, we have the urgency of strings providing an intelligent counterpoint with the fragility of the piano. Atop that, Clementine’s voice cuts through like a rapier. 

There’s diversity in the offering too. Auxiliary brings a most un-Clementine like pop jauntiness. Weakend is reminiscent of a Bond theme, with its rise-and-fall and suspenseful chords. In a supreme stroke of irony, And I Have Been’s longest track, Last Movement Of Hope, is an instrumental. Imagine, the finest voice of a generation deciding not to sing. It is almost like Bowie’s bold decision regarding side two of Low. No matter. Last Movement Of Hope, with it’s exquisite Satie-like piano, remains quite magnificent, vocal or no.

The piece-de-resistance of And I Have Been is its second track, Delighted. Melodramatic strings introduce us to this jewel as Clementine laments, “Here we go again”. Quite. As it unfolds, it majestically sweeps aside everything in its path. 

And I Have Been serves to remind us of the importance of Benjamin Clementine as one of the true innovators still working today. It is a fantastic record. Like Moses Sumney, his music is uncategorisable and long may it remain so.   

Thank God for the innovators. The risk takers. The true geniuses of the arts. Thank God for Benjamin Clementine. Treat yourself. Listen to this record.              

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