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"Behind every lion awaits a lazy dragonfly," roars Benjamin Clementine in his fierce, androgynous, abrasively beautiful voice in one of the restless tunes on the extraordinary I Tell a Fly. Throughout this second album – a theater piece-turned-sonic adventure — the pianist, poet and composer takes the insect as his muse, following its circular self-scatterings as it whizzes across borders and sneaks into dangerous rooms. It's a metamorphosis that acknowledges a particular, modern heritage. In 1915, the novelist Frank Kafka created his six-legged antihero, Gregor Samsa, as an embodiment of capitalism's tendency to isolate and disempower its minions. Nearly 75 years later, the critic Greg Tate coined the term "flyboy in the buttermilk" to describe how the graffiti genius Jean-Michel Basquiat disrupted the tacit white supremacism of the art world. Then there are the pop stars: U2's Bono, ubiquitous rock star of Clementine's British youth, becoming the character The Fly in 1991 as a way exploring the sticky mess of late-century globalization; and Miles Davis, who (as Kodwo Eshun writes) donned "bug-green fly shades" for 1975's electric Dark Magus as a way of "adapting to the audiomenagerie by becoming insectile himself." Miles and Kafka, Bono and Basquiat: Benjamin Clementine recognizes the fly's language as the common tongue of art made in a world where people's skeletons have become too soft to absorb society's blows.
The title I Tell a Fly is the first example of the album's sneaky wordplay – a play on "I tell a lie," just as "a lie" contains the first three letters of Clementine's keyword: alien. After seeing the phrase "an alien with extraordinary abilities " written on his visa to America, Clementine began considering what that designation means across lines of class, race or nation, and even over the course of a lifetime. I Tell a Fly loosely follows a pair of winged creatures as they flit through various border scenes. They visit the notorious refugee camps outside Calais in "God Save the Jungle," encounter a French fascist in "Paris Cor Blimey," and make fun of a privileged "American chap" in "Ode From Joyce," which interpolates Joyce Kilmer's famous corny poem "Trees." Like some dirty Dr. Seussian Lorax, Clementine speaks for the flies, who with their compound eyes can see the connections between intimate cruelties and the evils of empire. The album's mazelike centerpiece, "Phantom of Aleppoville," moves on the current of Clementine's piano through his memories of childhood bullying and into the bomb-strewn battlefields of the Middle East. "Awkward Fish" matches harpsichord sounds to a grimy drumbeat to make fabulist the story of an immigrant boy in South London. "By the Ports of Europe" imagines the influx of immigrants into Western Europe as a version of the Biblical tale of Noah. Mashing up myth and memory, Clementine ponders the effects of imposed borders: around countries, between children who begin as equals but are divided through prejudice, and in his own psyche. "They say you must become an animal for the animal to protect us, the good animal and so we go to war," he sings in the somber "Quintessence." Clementine is, as others have written, a musical George Orwell for our time.
Clementine's sometimes unhinged-seeming musicality is as dazzling as is his poetic vision. His lyrical wordplay extends into vocal and instrumental polyphony, accomplishing his goal of generating multiple viewpoints with in each song. The song suites on I Tell a Fly, produced and largely performed by the artist, incorporate a huge variety of sounds, from Clementine's neo-classical piano runs to Radiohead-style math rock, from multi-tracked choirs of Clementine's own voice to buried atonal babble, from the Blur-like, accessible "Jupiter" to the Soweto beat-grounded progressive rock of "Ave Dreamers." It takes time to absorb the shifting soundscapes of I Tell a Fly – like the fugitive realities so many 21st-century people inhabit, it's as difficult as it can be beautiful. But Clementine's exuberantly subversive spirit makes the journey worthwhile, and ultimately hopeful. "Barbarians are coming!" he wails at the end of this remarkable journey. "Dreamers stay strong!" It's a warning and an exhortation: Follow the path of the creature you want to swat, and you may find your way.