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Benjamin Clementine
At Least For Now Calum Bradbury-Sparvell , February 5th, 2015 13:48

On the cover of At Least For Now, Benjamin Clementine stands in a shadowy profile with a Granny Smith cupped in his right hand, as if Magritte's Son Of Man had finally plucked the offending fruit from his face but promptly swivelled away from the limelight. An appropriate symbol for this debut LP, during which the mythos of the Edmonton-raised Métro busker, who went from sleeping rough to impressing Macca in a barefoot Later… With Jools Holland performance, dissipates only to reveal something more inscrutable: a stranger in a trench coat.

There are some astonishing moments on At Least For Now. Clementine's voice is a force to be reckoned with – throaty, powerful, and theatrical to the point of histrionic – and his piano-playing bears all the hallmarks of unorthodoxy you would expect from a successful autodidact. Opener 'Winston Churchill's Boy' sees him rewrite and repurpose the wartime PM's oratory, lamenting "never in the field of human affection/ had so much been given for so few attention". It's a melodramatic beginning which harks back to the alienation he felt from family and friends on the eve of his emigration to the City Of Light. For a Gallic darling, Clementine certainly gazes wistfully across La Manche a lot and one senses that, despite the obvious French influences, there is more of the spurned Londoner in him than the flâneur.

With the expressive but exact enunciation of a stage actor, Clementine allows his lyrics to spill and scatter out of sync with his hands in a way which warrants the endless Nina Simone comparisons. Yet as an atypical singer-songwriter with a strong sense of grandeur, an impressively broad tenor range and more than a dash of dark humour, he also resembles Rufus Wainwright. And like Wainwright, he is at his best when alone at a grand piano, occasionally supplemented by strings. While the driving and bitterly didactic 'Nemesis' benefits from some percussive clickety-clacking and what sounds like a hammered dulcimer in the chorus, live favourite 'London', which once cantered unevenly according to Clementine's whim, is now tethered to a pedestrian 4/4 beat. Moreover the drum sound in 'Condolence' is almost embarrassingly thin, especially under a sombre piano-part drawn straight from's Yann Tiersen soundtrack work. Though hardly a St. Anger-level blunder, the synthetic cymbal splashes do grate.

In places, Clementine also reins himself in. 'Cornerstone' is both one of the simplest and one of the most beautiful songs on the record; Clementine repeatedly chants the word "home" in deep pants as if answering Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo's cries on Graceland’s 'Homeless'. 'St-Clementine-On-Tea-And-Croissants', however, is converted from a surreal seven-minute epic on a recent La Blogothèque video in Saint Geneviève Library to a short-lived a capella interlude. Although the raw bluesiness of the refrain makes for interesting listening in this context, his voice seems to strain or hold back rather than push into the textured falsetto of the longer version. Clementine's live presence invites equal parts rapture and confusion, so it is disappointing that he has chosen – or perhaps been encouraged – to impose time-limits and tack bland drums onto some of his most anarchic compositions.