In the years before his pivotal performance on Later… with Jools Holland in October 2013, Benjamin Clementine had been living on the streets of Paris, performing a cappella on the city’s Métro. Born and raised in Edmonton, London, he left school at 16 and relocated to Paris before his twentieth birthday. Having found his feet in the French capital, it was his debut performance on British television that transformed his fortunes and led to him being signed to Virgin EMI. The performance saw him barefoot, dressed head-to-toe in black, wailing, crooning, and yelping through his songs. Even though I was tuned in to watch one of the night’s other artists, his performance is the only thing I can remember from the show.
Cornerstone, the song he performed that night, has found its way onto his debut album, almost eighteen months later. In the interim, Clementine’s two EPs have showcased his formidable talent and his flair for eccentric song writing. His Cornerstone EP comprised three belting tracks that showcased the sheer power that can be harnessed from one man and his piano. 2014’s Glorious You again saw Clementine at his morosely enigmatic best, experimenting with song composition and stranger piano melodies.
Four of the tracks on At Least For Now have previously appeared on Clementine’s EPs. Adios and Condolence from Glorious You appear, but it is the two tracks from his debut EP which have the most impact in a full-length context. Cornerstone, the track which has long been Clementine’s calling-card, remains his masterpiece. His oldest tracks retain a simpler (and arguably poppier) approach to song writing, emphasising the sheer power of his voice and the beauty of his piano playing. These elements still shine in Cornerstone, and it is correspondingly the most immediate track on the album. London, on the other hand, has been completely reworked since its appearance on his first EP. Originally the track was – like Cornerstone – one which focused on the rawest aspects of Clementine’s sound, but the version on At Least For Now has added a cloying drum track into the mix. These older songs fit Clementine’s more traditional song writing, and his attempt to transplant his new style onto an old track falls flat.
Despite originating over a number of years, the previously released tracks sit comfortably alongside Clementine’s new compositions. The newer tracks showcase his growing confidence and feature wider use of instrumentation to match their ambitious composition. The album’s opener, Winston Churchill’s Boy, exemplifies this ethos. The track’s premise is strange in itself, with Clementine rewriting Churchill’s best known wartime speeches for his own story. Its instrumental gradually unfurls, with sparse piano and flurries of strings eventually trickling into a drumbeat and a weirdly modern sub-bass outro.
Its follow-up, Then I Heard a Bachelor’s Cry, features the album’s most exhilarating moment with stabbing strings and a panicked vocal refrain of “I’m sorry” repeated over and over again, descending downwards. As well as these completely new tracks, Clementine has also recorded a studio version of Nemesis, a track which has been knocking around in live performances since 2013. Unlike London, newly added instrumentation works well here, with strings heralding the song’s climax, but dropping out just before Clementine belts its final lyric, “So long, you run”, for a lung-destroying length of time. In this case, it makes perfect sense upon hearing this new version that he has waited so long to record it.
No other new track works quite so perfectly as these, but Clementine’s new compositions sit cohesively alongside tracks that were recorded two years ago. As debut albums tend to do, At Least For Now tells the story of Benjamin Clementine’s life up until this point. It is not as fully realised as his first EP, but his sheer talent and knack for interesting song writing shines throughout.