I hadn’t heard Benjamin Clementine before this album, but it’s pretty apparent that he’s a star, often compared to Nina Simone in his compelling delivery and stage presence. At Least For Now opens with ‘Winston Churchill’s Boy’: beginning just with piano and precise, penetrating vocals, this riffs on a Churchill speech, starting slow then picking up a stronger beat halfway through, descending to rich low notes at the end. It’s followed by ‘Cornerstone’, which draws on Clementine’s experience of homelessness, a lament articulated like a sob, ‘mind opened to your demise’.
‘Nemesis’ picks up the pace, flowing effortlessly from the opening beat into a soaring chorus, then back: ‘remember your days are fully numbered […] march on’. It’s rousing.
‘The People And I’ feels more routine in its pace and its flourishes, much as you’d expect from a ballad/lament, then slips into an unexpected ticking beat at the end, risking cheesiness in its uplift, but handled with skill. ‘London’ sweeps and soars with ambition: ‘I won’t underestimate who I am capable of becoming’, with an added cockney twang on some lines. It feels like it could be the heartfelt number in a great stage musical.
The title of ‘Then I Heard A Bachelor’s Cry’ sounds like it could have come straight out of William Blake, although it’s set in Paris. I really like the low notes, atmospheric and lingering – ‘Who’s next in line to get hurt?’ – a frenetic turn on piano and strings, bashing away into swooping high notes, then back to brooding depth at the end. Clementine often performs these shifts and twists, stopping the songs from being too expected. ‘St–Clementine-On-Tea-And-Croissants’ is brilliantly bizzarre, capturing the feel of busking.
‘Condolence’ is the first song I feel the urge to skip, perhaps because the urgency of live performance doesn’t completely translate into the recorded version, but then ‘Quiver A Little’ alternates between singing and speaking, which is very dramatically effective. There are even church bells, reminding me of Dickens as well as Blake: the struggles the album describes – homelessness, displacement, being ‘lost’ – feel so emblematic of the nineteenth century and haven’t left us since. It’s not without humour, pain occasionally delivered with a charismatic shrug: ‘So why would you waste a lot of your energy on what people might say? Just quiver a little then burst’. In ‘Adios’ it’s ‘goodbye to the little child in me’ and acceptance of mistakes: ‘the decision was mine so let the lesson be mine’. It’s self-possessed, slipping from singing into confidential talking, then an operatic turn that’s almost an aria. The line ‘and all the salt in the Dead Sea ferments to honey’ is a pretty good description of Clementine’s style, alternately weeping, abrasive and heavily sweet. The lyrics throughout have real quickness and skill. ‘Gone’ rounds off the record with a return to heartfelt piano; sometimes the pace feels a bit soupy, but any long lapse is avoided through Clementine’s unexpected moments, an underlying wit and force that keeps his work strong.