Britain's Benjamin Clementine emerged in 2015 as a theatrical pop eccentric, brimming with a self-assurance that bolstered his immediately distinctive melding of classical, opera, soul, and folk. Minimally arranged for piano and drums and powerfully delivered in a strange smattering of accents and personas, his sound was singular and his debut outing, At Least for Now, was justly rewarded with the coveted Mercury Prize. Parlaying this critical success into a license to challenge, Clementine offers his wildly ambitious and frequently baffling follow-up, I Tell a Fly. To call I Tell a Fly a difficult listen may be understating it, but within this madcap art-pop song cycle, which is purportedly about two flies in love, are some genuine payoffs for those with the patience to stick with it. Decidedly modern, though tonally experimental in a way that feels almost old-fashioned, Clementine manipulates his music through classic methods of tape looping, hard panning, and oblique arrangements that dramatically come, go, and shift within the mix. The irony of opening the album with a nearly five-minute "Farewell Sonata" is suggestive of the wild ride to follow. Meticulously packed with lead and backing vocals in a variety of timbres, songs like the warbling harpsichord-ornamented "Better Sorry Than a Safe" and the sprawling and kooky refugee crisis commentary "Phantom of Aleppoville" show an intense artist operating at a full sprint down the crooked ginnels of his imagination. Aside from the contributions of French drummer Alexis Bossard, Clementine is the sole captain of this ship, writing, producing, and performing nearly every sound on the album. If his label, Universal, were expecting some sort of single, their best bet would be the bouncy "Jupiter" sitting smack in the center like a weird-tasting digestive biscuit. At its least digestive are fascinating but unlistenable tracks like "One Awkward Fish" and "Paris Cor Blimey." The abstract yet oddly satisfying "By the Ports of Europe" is a joyful ride and closer "Ave Dreamer" is simply magnificent. Following his debut, it was anyone's guess where Clementine might go next, but after I Tell a Fly, it's probably best to expect the unexpected.
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AllMusic Review by Timothy Monger