Benjamin Clementine is one of the most intriguing artists to have emerged in recent years. A real life Cinderella, the British-Ghanaian busked in Paris between bouts of homelessness before signing to a major label and winning the Mercury Prize in 2015.
One of the more leftfield victors, his ambition was cranked up a gear with this year’s I Tell A Fly. A loosely based concept album around the refugee crisis, it’s over saturated with ideas and avant-garde styles of music.
It’s a bold theatricality and lack of restraint that he also brings to his live show.
More Dadaist art happening than traditional gig, it sees him and his two-piece band vying for space on the stage with a dozen mannequins of pregnant women and children. He explains that the props are a reminder that ‘it’s through talking that things get solved’ but there are wider politics involved when he hugs one of the small models while impassioning “one Turkish boy” – a reference to Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi – on ‘One Awkward Fish’.
The two-hour set is full of such allusions to immigration, with the passage he reads from Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant being a nod to Trump’s proposed border wall.
At other times the message being conveyed is less obvious, as when he spends five-minutes walking in and around the seated audience intoning ‘porto bello’ mid-way through ‘By The Ports Of Europe’ or when he adopts a teacher-ish persona and gives a ten-minute singing lesson during ‘Condolence’.
That there is a hidden meaning is beyond doubt because he brings an intelligence and intensity to all of his work. It’s this that makes him so fascinating but, at times, so frustrating. Each song has more ideas than many artists’ entire back catalogues, with ‘God Save The Jungle’ alone taking in neo-classical, jazz, music hall and a riff on the national anthem. It’s a breath-taking mix, especially when combined with an androgynous voice that effortlessly moves from earth shaking baritone to trembling falsetto.
It’s rare to criticise an artist for having too many concepts but while Clementine is a captivating, physical performer he’s yet to learn the value of editorial restraint. When he does – as on the solo piano encore of ‘Cornerstone’ – he’ll be untouchable.