Benjamin Clementine speaks his own language.
It comes through in his occasionally unexpected word pronunciation — like singing “ports” such that it could be mistaken for “boats” — that feels like clever wordplay and sometimes may just reflect the idiosyncratic accent of an Englishman born to Ghanaian parents who cut his artistic teeth as a homeless teenager busking in Paris.
Mostly it’s heard in his music, as found on two albums (so far), each a sort of self-contained universe that can be engagingly confounding but which richly rewards repeated listening.
Much about Clementine is instantly striking: his singing voice, a rich baritone; his 6-foot 4-inch frame, sometimes topped by an exclamatory beehive haircut; the conspicuous cheekbones and taste for the fine couture of a fashion model. But he doesn’t demand any special status.
“At the very beginning of my career, which was just a couple of years back, I wanted to be that special artist who you would sit down and be quiet and listen to,” Clementine, 29, says in a phone call from London, “but in fact I should be doing the opposite, because I want to be heard by many people. I want to be what people know. I don’t want to have a tag next to my name, because then I become niche.”
His sui generis debut, 2015’s “At Least For Now,” introduced an unknown performer as fully formed maestro, performing his elegantly ambitious compositions at the piano as if for an intimate audience of one. It won the prestigious Mercury Prize and turned the grimy anecdotes from his homeless Paris period into chatty fodder to discuss with the international press.
He wrote the follow-up (“I Tell A Fly,” released last fall) while living in the United States for more than a year, leaving his temporary Lower East Side apartment for road trips like the one that took him from Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon. He also fell in love with the scenery in and around Albuquerque, and he says he plans to relocate there later this year.
The new album’s lyrics are filled with an impressionistic vocabulary of dislocation — physical, emotional, spiritual. He was inspired by the bureaucratic language on the traveler’s visa he received from the US government, describing the holder as “an alien of extraordinary ability.”
The word alien became key to the themes of the record.
“That gave me the oomph or the courage to say: I’m going to make an album and write songs in the perspective of an alien, someone suffering from alienation,” he says. “It sort of finalizes the whole meaning of my existence, the whole meaning of my life. The word I will choose to describe my life, as of now and in the past, will be alien.”
The new album expands on Clementine’s urbane piano balladry and those old spots of swinging shimmy (“London,” “Condolence”) to welcome processed breakbeats and spookily layered vocals, bits of musique concrete, and some of what might be called alien- pop. Its disorienting opening track, “Farewell Sonata,” seems to be about a traveler in transit, perhaps leaving his homeland. “By the Ports of Europe” elliptically addresses the Brexit vote.
“Ben’s an alien, passing by,” the artist sings self-referentially on the slinky “Jupiter.” Lyrics of the album’s benediction, a harpsichord-flavored “Ave Dreamer,” may display a reflection of language of contemporary American political debate over immigration, mixed maybe with a touch of C.P. Cavafy: “The barbarians are coming,” he sings, “but will the dreamers stay strong?”
In interviews he’s described the album as the story of two globe-trotting flies in love, but you could listen a thousand times and fail to come to that conclusion on your own. He says the album contains only a fraction of the material he’d like to develop in a book-length treatment of its themes. What seems clear, though, is Clementine’s view of the political implications of an individual’s personal psychological development. On the haunted suite “Phantom of Aleppoville,” he suggests that the bullying absorbed by a child will later manifest in other forms of cruelty.
“The second [album] is more about what is happening now in the world, what’s happening in general in Europe with all the immigrants,” Clementine’s drummer, Alexis Bossard, says in a call from Paris. “I think we are trying to say something very important. I think this is a bit more political.”
‘That gave me . . . the courage to say: I’m going to make an album and write songs in the perspective of an alien, someone suffering from alienation.’
Bassist Axel Akermann will round out the group on the upcoming tour, which begins in the United States before a run of European dates and an unlikely finale at the typically sun-drenched Coachella festival.
“If you’re not in love then you’re out of love, therefore you hate and you kill,” Clementine says. “If a child is left alone, of course they’re going to hate the world. Then they go to school and they start bullying other kids. Once you feel comfortable with just being loved and being cared for, you give that back.”
Though he grew up in a strictly religious household, and his lyrics are littered with allusions to the Bible, Clementine says he’s no longer formally religious but instead subscribes to a simple philosophy.
“I know for a fact that love is the only thing. I don’t need Jesus Christ to tell me that. I don’t need Muhammad to tell me that. I know from my experiences that all I ever wanted was just being cared for and being loved.”Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update: After the publication of this story, Clementine canceled the U.S. tour that included a concert at Berklee Performance Center Jan. 30, citing ticket sales. He said he had been invited to join David Byrne on an upcoming tour and that he would perform at Coachella as planned.