Album Review of "I Tell a Fly" by Benjamin Clementine


Odd Man Out: A Fly's-Eye View of Alienation

A strange comment on his US work visa application led British avant-garde artist Benjamin Clementine to create one of this year's most compelling–and unusual–concept albums. 

Genre: Avant-Garde

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Album Review Podcast - Show Notes
I Tell a Fly by Benjamin Clementine

Learn more about Benjamin Clementine, listen to I Tell A Fly, and read additional reviews.

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Album Review: I Tell A Fly by Benjamin Clementine
Odd Man Out: A Fly's-Eye View of Alienation

This is a transcript of Ep. 12 of the What's This Album About? podcast - listen here

Welcome to What’s This Album About?, the podcast that dives deep into the lyrics of today’s best songwriters. I’m Bobby Waller, and in this episode we focus on English avant-garde singer-songwriter Benjamin Clementine’s new album, I Tell a Fly

     ♪  Wishing Americana happy!

I Tell a Fly is Clementine’s exploration of what it means to be an outsider. The story behind its message begins with the real-life incident that Clementine alludes to in this song, Track 6, “Jupiter.” Let’s listen to the opening line.

     ♪  Ben is an alien of extra ability

“Ben is an alien of extra ability.” It’s a paraphrase of a quote Clementine spotted on paperwork related to his U.S. work visa application, which described him as “an alien of extraordinary ability.” Clementine has stated in interviews that he was taken aback by the bluntness of this label and that, after the initial shock, came to realize he has really has been an alien wherever he has gone. 

     ♪  Ben is an alien 

Clementine was born and raised in North London, a black child of Ghanaian descent in a predominantly white country. He says he was traumatized by the bullying he experienced as a kid, and he references that bullying in the album’s lead single.

This is Track 4, “Phantom of Allepoville.” In it, Clementine entices a bully from his past to step forward and accept forgiveness.

     ♪  Billy the bully
           It's all right
           You've been forgiven

By mentioning the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo in the title of this song, Clementine gives a nod to the psychological theorist he has cited in interviews as the song’s inspiration—mid-twentieth-century child psychologist, Donald Winnicott, who proposed that children who are severely bullied suffer effects that resemble those of children in war zones. 

According to Clementine, this problem of alienating others—of seeing other people as inferiors who deserve maltreatment—is proliferate. It happens in the bombed-out cities of Syria, in the schoolyards of England, and, really, everywhere. I Tell a Fly gives its audience a bird’s eye view—or, more accurately a fly’s eye view—of the problems caused all over the world by the human propensity to treat others as aliens.

So let’s go ahead and get to the business of figuring out why this album is called I Tell a Fly. Clementine has stated in interviews that seeing himself described as “an alien of extraordinary ability” on his work visa application made him feel like a fly—a pest, an unwanted element in the environment that must be made to go away. And so Clementine conceived a story of two flies who fly from place to place observing the human condition and taking particular note of the ubiquitous effects of people alienating one another. 

I Tell a Fly is a story of flight, and our first sonic reference to flight comes in the middle of Track 1, “Farewell Sonata,” which we’re hearing right now. It begins as a straightforward piano piece, but it eventually becomes more operatic, sounding like this:

     ♪  Farewell
           Farewell alien!
           Farewell alien!

Between those two parts, though, we hear this segue. That is definitely a sound you don't hear on your everyday pop album. It's a musical imitation of flight. And we hear another such imitation in Track 3, “Better Sorry Than Asafe,” where it sounds more specifically like the buzzing fly.

By the way, I think it’s interesting to note that a lot of album reviewers and even contributors to lyrics sites have been misspelling the title of this song. They often refer to it as “Better Sorry Than Safe,” not realizing that Clementine put the syllable a before safe, or they refer to it as “Better Sorry Than a Safe,” spelled a- space s-a-f-e, as if a is an article and safe is “a place where you store valuables.” But the hard copy insert for I Tell a Fly clearly spells asafe as  a-s-a-f-e, with no space. The a is not an article; it’s a prefix of negation. In this song, asafe means “not safe.” 

Ok, so let’s get clear about this. Clementine has told interviewers that I Tell a Fly is about the relationship between two flies—one who lives cautiously and the other who prefers to embrace risk bravely. In “Better Sorry Than Asafe,” the latter fly contradicts the adage that it is “better to be safe than sorry” by questioning the more cautious fly’s very belief in safety. The cautious fly would like to remain in a safe place, but the adventurous fly asserts that there I no such thing as a truly safe place for an alien. What the cautious fly calls “safe” is really “asafe.” It’s falsely safe. And while taking risks may lead to being sorry, there are no options for aliens that don’t lead to being sorry. So it’s better to accept sorry outcomes bravely than to live in the delusion of false safety. Put differently: it’s better to be sorry than “asafe.” 

As you can hear, Clementine is a big fan of word play. The title I Tell a Fly is a play on the phrase “tell a lie,” and a lie is the first four letters of the word alien. Clementine keeps his audience on its toes by constantly shifting our focus back and forth between phonemes and morphemes—between the way things sound and what things mean. The effect can be disorienting at times, but it’s just how Clementine rolls. In the song we’re hearing right now, for example—Track 5, “Paris Cor Blimey”—he riffs on the phrase “Paris' friend had a little pen,” 

     ♪  Paris’ friend had a little pen
           A little pen
           Paris’ friend had

The phrase “had a little pen” begs the phrase “had a little lamb,” which, of course, is preceded by “Mary.” But in Paris, Mary wouldn’t be Mary; she’d be Marie or some variation thereof. So “Mary had a little lamb” correlates to “Marie had a little pen.” You get it? Marie… Pen… Marine… Le Pen… This song is actually an indictment of Marine Le Pen, head of France’s far-right political party, the Front National, which has openly touted French nativism and cast immigrants as undesirable aliens. The song ends like this…

     ♪  It’s the rats
           Don’t you know, my friend?
           It’s the rats
          Just uh, blame it on the rats

We hear the narrative voice of an angry Le Pen blaming the theft of what rightfully belongs to Paris on the rats—France’s immigrants, who, like the flies that appear throughout I Tell a Fly, are alien and unwanted pests. 

It might be worth noting here that Clementine himself was once an alien in France. He moved to Paris at age nineteen where he made a living busking in the subways and where he found himself doubly alienated—both a black man in a predominantly white country and an Englishman in France. So the concern Clementine shows for aliens on I Tell a Fly is not the voice of a sympathetic outsider; it’s the voice of insider experience. It is no coincidence that the adventurous fly in I Tell a Fly’s story arc alights on all the places Clementine himself has experienced alienation. The fly begins his journey on Track 2, “God Save the Jungle.” 

     ♪  Welcome to jungle dear

It’s song about the Calais Jungle, a French refugee camp at the narrowest part of the English Channel, and it’s written from the perspective of an English xenophobe who hopes the refugees will remain on the French side of the channel. 

     ♪  Welcome to jungle dear

From there, the fly buzzes through Clementine’s own life arc, beginning with his English childhood in Track 4, “Phantom of Allepoville," which we heard about earlier...

     ♪  Oh Billy the bully, come on out of your hideout

..continuing to France on Track 5, “Paris Cor Blimey,”…

     ♪  Paris’ friend had a little pen

…crossing the Atlantic to the U.S. in Track 6, “Jupiter,”…

     ♪  Wishing Americana happy
           Wishing Americana free

and returning to Europe in Track 9, “By the Ports of Europe.”

     ♪  By the Ports of Europe
           By the Ports of Europe
           By the Ports of Europe
           By the Ports of Europe

The album ends on Track 11, “Ave Dreamer.” 

     ♪  Hey dreamer, hey dreamer
           Hey dreamer, hey dreamer

The term ave comes from the Latin averer, a greeting that can serve either as a welcome are as a farewell. So, on the one hand, “Ave Dreamer” could be heard as a song that welcomes the adventurous fly back to England—a joyous exaltation of a long-awaited homecoming. On the other hand, it could be heard as a preemptive farewell—a song of worry for all aliens.

Its scope is clearly intended to be broader than that of a single fly. The term “Dreamer” pretty obviously connotes the “dreamers” who have been in the U.S. news lately—children of illegal immigrants who have been protected from deportation but whose protected status has been repealed by the current U.S. presidential administration. While some have viewed such a repeal as a necessary step in the protection of U.S. national safety and resources, Clementine remains skeptical of national identity in general. 

As a lifelong alien himself, he has never been welcome to share the identity of most of the people around him. But like the braver of the two flies in his narrative, he chooses not to be paralyzed by alienation. Instead, like one of his obvious heroes, David Bowie, he keeps reinventing himself. And through I Tell a Fly, he enjoins us to do the same. Keep moving. Keep being who you are, regardless of where you end up. And above all, to keep dreaming. 

     ♪  Hey dreamer, hey dreamer
           Hey dreamer, hey dreamer
           Hey dreamer, hey dreamer

Thanks for listening to What’s This Album About? If you like what we do, take a moment to help us out by writing us a quick review on iTunes. It’ll help us a lot. Tune in next time when we give a listen to St. Vincent’s new album Masseduction. Until then, I’m Bobby Waller reminding you to keep dreaming. And keep your ears open because...

the more you listen, the more you love.