Benjamin Clementine has led a storied life, moving from his native London to Paris after failing most of his GCSE’s and a falling out with his family, living on the streets busking his way out of poverty with no shortage of lyricism, musicality and hard work. He has literally been down and out in Paris and London, just like Orwell’s book, and he is the winner of the 2015 Mercury Music Prize. Sometimes the only time we can find ourselves or who we truly are is remove ourselves from our everyday, our familiar environment, and in difference find out who we are, such as in the opening track, Winston Churchill’s Boy.
Where is your family/Where are your loved ones/Someone uttered/As he went on, crossing the channel/Well they say no man can be a prophet in his own country/So I left, here I am
The feeling of departure, and of being a man with a foot in both worlds is replete all throughout At Least for Now, like a constant push and pull, but also a sonic biography. In Then I Heard a Bachelor’s Cry, he sings of “walking round the boulevards, looking for magicians” and “looking for answers”, but the only thing he finds and can offer is pain, so he finds himself alone. London examines the hardships of trying to make it as an artist when no one is buying your material and people telling you you can’t make it, whilst fiercly struggling and fighting on to become the potential you know you possess when he sings “When my ways are not happening I won’t underestimate who I am capable of becoming.”
There’s hints of Nina Simone, Antony and the Johnsons high register, but also of Beirut and Sting in Benjamin Clementine’s voice. It’s a voice that although you can hear his influences is entirely his own, filtered through his own experiences. He has a sound that can range from the deepest hues of the blues to eccentric moments of rock opera, classical music and chamber pop. This is a man who has literally bled for his art – in a concert at Paris in 2015 he accidentally cut his finger whilst playing piano and kept on playing. This album has on it possibly some of the most intricate and fascinating piano playing I’ve had the pleasure to listen to since Regina Spektor. It’s a complex, brilliantly composed album handled with such dexterity and emotional depth I find it difficult not to recommend it.
Divers is an album possessed by the spirit of early Kate Bush from the high register of her voice to the gentle lilting strings and piano. You can almost hear vocal echoes of Wuthering Heights or Army Dreamers here, when Kate was a rawer form of weird, less polished and studio produced, and not afraid to caterwaul or be playful with her lyricism. There are moments of chamber music here, hints of likeness to PJ Harvey’s brilliant Victoriana of White Chalk and a brilliant pagan darkness contained within.
Anecdotes is about the conversation and experiences of two soldiers talking in the middle of a watch whilst an air raid is mounted, and then time jumps forward to the present like an elastic band as the song’s narrator says “Now hush, little babe./You don’t want to be/down in the trenches, remembering with me.”
Saponkanikan continues the theme of aviation and World War I, and is replete with references to John Purroy Mitchel, a man known as “The Boy Mayor of New York,” who died after a short term in office as an Army air officer in the last months of World War I, whilst also being intrinsically linked to Native American culture, Sapokanikan being one of the Lenape villages discovered by archaeologists as having once existed on Manhattan island prior to the arrival of the Europeans. The song is also about what is hidden being revealed, as it mentions a painting of the Biblical Tobias and the Angel, and a painting underneath the inferior facade revealing a Titian painting of a girl and her mother, mirroring the archaeological discovery of Sapokanikan being hidden under Greenwich Village.
But to say that Joanna Newsome or Divers is merely the product of her influences would be doing both the artists and this excellent concept album a major disservice. Each song is a contained narrative, some with stories within stories like a lyrical Rashomon. Yes, there are themes of diving, being out of control, lost and obvious allusions to aviation and World War I, but it is also infinitely richer than that, just as Elliot’s The Wasteland is much more than the sum of its references.
After the polarising single Go, Grimes has returned to the drawing board with a new album rich in shoegaze dream pop. The album opens with Laughing and Not Feeling Normal, a song that sounds like a baroque Danny Elfman track. SCREAM is sung entirely by guest vocalist, Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, and is a twisted soundscape sung entirely in Mandarin accompanied with a guitar like a speedboat chase in an 80’s cop show, and Kill vs Maim is pure J-pop in the style of Tommy Heavenly. Trying to define Grimes sound at the best of times is like trying to grasp a mirage or to explain a shifting dream to a friend and only realising in the explaining of it that you lose the magic of it. It’s a glorious abstraction of disparate images akin to a sensory overload that I recommend you lose yourself to.
Originally printed in Issue #327 of the Kirkby Extra, December 2015.
Blossoms have returned after the excellent EP Blown Rose, with another belter of an EP. The band is effortlessly catchy, producing psyche guitar rock with an 80’s twist. Charlemagne, the titular track, genuinely sounds displaced from time, like a lost forgotten top 10 synth pop anthem from the 80’s come back to remind us of the promise of what 80’s pop was at its best full of soaring vocals and great pop hooks. Across the Moor is slow and bassy like a subtler, slower electro funk, and Polka Dot Bones possesses some great menacing keyboards. This is genuinely one of the most promising new bands of 2015, and I urge you to give them a listen. My only problem is I can’t help but want more, something I can only hope they do soon.
With a title like Angels & Ghosts you’d expect there would be elements of gospel and elegiac rock, and the album certainly doesn’t disappoint: Gahan’s voice is at its vampiric best as an evangelical crooner seeking redemption rather than the grunge rock messiah he was in Songs of Faith of Devotion, or the dark wave synth seduction of earlier Depeche Mode albums. The album swings from Gahan blessing his congregation with songs like Shine to descending into sin with songs like Tempted. One Thing is a beautiful slow dance of a song whilst also ruminating on all of the apathy in the world and feeling disconnected to the present and showing a desire to just get out of town.
It’s a different world today/No one seems to care much anyway/ Don’t listen to what they say/They don’t know what they're fighting for/There’s always life on Mars out there for me.
Yet at the same time realising that the one unifying force that keeps us all going is love (“You just need one thing/Love”) and that despite the multitudes of shit and absurdity that we go through in a day, the micro aggressions, the stupidity, the apathy of our lives, we get through it because of those we love.
It’s hard not to compare the album to his work with Depeche Mode, especially when the album feels so much like an else world Songs of Faith & Devotion. The album is rock tinged gospel in a lesser key – more mellow, less immediate, but nonetheless seductive to the ears. Let’s face it, Dave Gahan could sing out the names of English counties and it would sound sublime.
When New Order mounted a comeback in 2001 after a hiatus of 8 years I was glad to see them, but other than Crystal and 60 Miles an hour, honestly the album left me cold. However, Music Complete seems to be the comeback I was waiting for.
Restless is a catchy pop single about not feeling like you fit in with this ever changing world, and being left cold when the weight of the world is heavier than your own expectations of life. It’s cheery apathy which questions can just a taste of love sustain you and can we achieve our impossible dreams in a world that tries at every time to prevent you from doing so.
Singularity harks back to the bands origins in Joy Division with a bass line so reminiscent of Shadowplay I was half convinced it was a Joy Division song I’d never heard. It recalls the best of their past work whilst giving a knowing nod to their past. Singularity is about attraction, but also about trying to escape from the prescribed roles and moving on with our lives one day at a time. It’s a song about recognising and remembering your past, but not being bound by it and letting it define your present or future.
One day at a time/Inch by inch/For every kiss/On lovers’ lips/For all lost souls/Who can’t come home/Friends, not here/We shared our tears.
Plastic examines the superficiality of attraction, the confusion of love with lust and how love can be an intoxicating poison. The song turns completely around in the end, starting off with showering the object of his desire with praise, to a middle act of uncertainty in the tumult of all of these emotions when Bernard Sumner sings “If you break me, will you fix me?/And if I’m missing, will you miss me?” The song ends with the realisation of the artificiality of his love interest and him leaving her behind.
Stray Dog features Iggy Pop’s inimitable drawling narration like a Faustian pact in a boxcar with bootleg liquor. The song’s about unconditional love, alcoholism and the temporariness of love and how sometimes love is the act of staying in one place when our bodies and lives just want to move on, no matter how good our intentions are.
The album is dark, brooding and industrial yet still great electronic pop, recalling both early New Order and the more pop side of the band. The title “Music Complete” is apt, as this feels like the band’s most complete and accomplished album in years, and is a real return to form.
Hey, I did another article for Get Into This! This time on video game music in popular culture. Check it out.
The band’s first album in seven years, The Light in You shows that some albums are worth the wait. The Queen of Swans is a song about the transformative nature of love, juxtaposed with images of ghosts and death, and references Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, a place where lovers or the lovelorn leave letters in the crypt. Are You Ready similarly deals with falling in love with as an otherworld experience that can only be explained in metaphor. The album is replete with the idea that love is transitory, fleeting, sad and beautiful, but its worth feeling. It’s an eerie, twinkling, intimate and introspective album. Jonathan Donahue sings lyrics to us from another world: a world that still has magic and still has the ability to stir something inside of us and make us feel something.
Originally printed in Issue #326 of the Kirkby Extra, November 2015.
Like Grapes of Wrath in a drunken haze whilst getting the taxi back from the night before, B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down has a detached nihilism about it – you’re along for the ride but you’re not really there. This is aided by the fact that the songs drift one into another – they’re all good songs, but feel like different movements of the same song rather than each son being its own thing.
Pretty Pimpin’ is a song about disassociation with the man in the mirror with lines about “brushing a strangers teeth, but they were my teeth,” and of drunken dislocation with time as well as self. The song has a lackadaisical quality about it, of just drifting from day to day feeling like someone else and not knowing what day it is. The repeated refrain, “I woke up this morning didn’t recognise this boy in the mirror” also speaks of the man in the song not recognising who he is anymore as he grows older – he’s still a boy, but he’s not the boy he was, and every day he’s someone different.
"I was buggin' out 'bout a couple-two-three things
Picked up my microphone and started to sing
I was feeling worse than the words come out
Fell on some keys, and this song walked outta me"
Lost My Head is about song writing as emotional exorcism, getting the words out of your system so they don’t churn around your head and drive you crazy. Vile nails it when he says he doesn’t want to talk or shout about it, but he will sing about it – there’s something of a confession ethic in getting on stage and singing out your troubles rather than just talking about it. Why confide in a friend when you can confide in a room full of strangers? Performance is catharsis when you’re being ridden by the demon of inspiration.
The album is reminiscent in tone of Bruce Springstein with shades of Ian McCullloch, replete with world weariness and imagery of the outlaw on a dusty pilgrimage through the heart of America that’s part myth and part everyday mundanity. I just wish that each track felt more like a distinct adventure from the last – if there’s one complaint I have about the album it’s that everything blurs into one, which is a shame because I do like it and the feeling and scenery the music evokes in me. But maybe that’s the point of it and I’ve missed it completely: that the songs travel from one to another like a car or a train passing through places just long enough to take in the scenery and atmosphere but not long enough to put your feet on the ground and get your bearings.
Monthly music columnist for the Kirkby Extra, sometimes article writer for Get Into This. Freelance writer/artist/maker.