Unabashedly operatic and soulful

What a twist of fate. A homeless Londoner who had busked on the Parisian Metro for years, Benjamin Clementine beat the likes of Jamie xx and Florence And The Machine to nab the highly coveted Mercury Prize this year with his debut album, At Least For Now.

Appropriately, he dedicated his prize to his city of adoption, specifically the victims in the terrorist attacks.

His delivery is a French chansonnier's, but he sings in English and is clearly untrained, his spinto alto lit by fire. His style is also unabashedly operatic, stitched from Puccini and Pavarotti, and soulful, inspired by a performance by Antony And The Johnsons he saw on television.



    Benjamin Clementine

    Virgin EMI

    4/5 stars

His timing is pitch-perfect and dramatic, switching moods like Rufus Wainwright on steroids. How he segues into that airless castrato, then dives into the depth in Adios, a suspenseful torch song, is breathtaking.

Saying goodbye to "the child in me, who kept on blaming everyone else", he chants, "the decision is mine, so let the lesson be mine", ensnared in a pizzicato piano melody.

This is music wrenched from living on the streets. "Out of absolutely nothing/I Benjamin/I was born/So that when I become someone one day/I always remember I came from nothing," he sings each word of Condolence as if it's the only subsistence for the day. His voice, fuelled by defiance, rises as a half-scream.

Sometimes, his idiosyncratic phrasing can distract rather than focus.

He breathes the blues into the doomed English folk singer Nick Drake's 1969 dirge River Man, but misses its elegiac wistfulness.

In a demo version of The Movies Never Lie (available on the deluxe version of the album), his virtuosity invigorates.

"I miss you, I miss you, I miss you," he rattles off the words like lines from a cinematic brief encounter where Paris remains the city of lights, casting a glow over lovers who cross and part ways.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2015, with the headline 'Unabashedly operatic and soulful'. Subscribe