Show: Wednesday at Sixth and I. Show starts at 8 p.m. 202-408-3100. sixthandi.org. $25 in advance, $28 at the door.
It was impressive enough that Benjamin Clementine won 2015’s Mercury Prize, the $30,000 award for the best recording by a British or Irish act, with his debut full-length album. It’s even more impressive that “At Least for Now” is unlike anything else in pop music at the moment. The best shorthand description is perhaps “Nina Simone singing the Leonard Cohen songbook,” for Clementine’s unapologetically literary lyrics are delivered in a strong but idiosyncratic tenor.
The album opens with “Winston Churchill’s Boy,” as Clementine, accompanied by only his own piano, transmutes Churchill’s famous quotation about World War II into a description of his own battles: “Never in the field of human affection had so much been given for so few attentions.” This child of England fled his religious family and the poverty of North London and arrived in Paris with an Orwell paperback and a borrowed guitar, the now string-swollen song reveals. He dreams of the day when “this boy will stand in front of a pulpit as the world gives him but a minute.”
The Mercury Prize has given Clementine more than a minute to share his carefully crafted metaphors for youthful angst and romantic heartbreak in crisply articulated vocals over bare-bones gospel piano and minor-key string arrangements. These tales of a young man’s hopes frustrated at every turn may be familiar, but their intuitive treatment is unusual. In “Adios,” he declares, “Adios to the little child in me who kept blaming everyone else.” On the drum-driven rock track, “London,” he adds: “When my preferred ways are not happening, I won’t underestimate who I am capable of becoming.” The 27-year-old isn’t there yet, but he’s capable of becoming one of the top singer-songwriters of his generation.