One of the declared aims of the Mercury Prize is “to help introduce new albums from a variety of musical genres to a wider audience”. No one had heard of Benjamin Clementine a year ago. His debut album, ‘At Least For Now’, released in January, received limited attention. NME didn’t review it at all (our bad).
So the 26-year-old North Londoner is a true under-the-radar winner, and whatever you think about him winning the prize, lots of people who would never otherwise of heard if him now will. Job done. But what’s his album actually like? The Mercury judges have a perverse habit of passing over excellent records for not so excellent ones — Reprazent’s ‘New Forms’ instead of ‘OK Computer by Radiohead in 1997, ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ by Elbow instead of Burial’s ‘Untrue’ in 2008 and M People’s ‘Elegant Slumming’ instead of anything else on the list in 1994. ‘At Least For Now’ is no bungle – it’s one of the most forward-thinking and inventive records in this year’s shortlist.
Clementine’s metier is torch songs, most of which tend to follow the same pattern — an opening of piano chords that ebbs and flows with Clementine gliding over the top before launching into a full-throated outburst of emotion. The comparisons to 2005’s winners Antony And The Johnsons aren’t quite fair, mostly because Clementine has none of Anthony Hegarty’s theatricality or operatic falsetto. In fact, his technique is pretty rough and ready, lacking in technique and range but bursting with character, his delivery full of odd phrasings and unexpected twists. So while he’s not that great a singer, he is a very interesting one. Which is much more important.
There’s a lot to take in on ‘At Least For Now’: the carefully scripted lyrics, Clementine’s unique singing style, the dark piano melodies. Not a record suited to casual listening then. But, like an improving book, this is an album that you sometimes have to force yourself to persevere with. And at its heart, there are universal themes of love and dreams, things that everyone can identify with, not a baroque flight of fantasy.
Clementine got his start busking on the Paris Metro, where he was discovered by a producer. He went on, by way of an appearance on Later… With Jools Holland, to land a recording contract. Winning the Mercury is the dream ending for his fairy tale, but – he’ll no doubt be hoping – only of chapter one. You’ve got to hope the weight of expectation doesn’t crush him, as it has previous under-the-radar winners. Speech Debelle, anyone…?