“Cornerstone” – Benjamin Clementine – don’t try this at home (home, home, home, home)

SongExpresso challenges you to listen to Benjamin Clementine and not to have an opinion. Or remember something from what you just heard. No-one else we know does anything like this (and really they shouldn’t try). A jumble of diverse accelerations, dynamics, melodies and feelings? No, a feast. 

We can speculate where this comes from (possibly something to do with classical influences or “French” emphasis on lyrical content? – ChansonExpress remains to be convinced but will investigate) – possibly also partly being at the first album stage (that’s when writers have the greatest amount of material and freedom to do things their way). Certainly, there is enormous freedom in the lyrics and style, and we’re left with the impression that although we don’t necessarily know what’s coming next, to the writer and eventually to us it just feels right. And is actually more structured than we might assume.

So, let’s dive in:

“Cornerstone”, Benjamin Clementine

I am alone in a box of stone

Hold it right there – “box” is such a pejorative word – really objective and stark; packaging, almost. It’s not even a shell. Box of stone – can only be two things, a house or a coffin. Which is it?

When all is said and done

As the wind blows to the east from the west

Unto this bed, my tears have their solemn rest

We still don’t know whether it’s a house or a coffin – the “solemn rest” certainly leaves an infusion of death in the air. We may have different opinions depending on the rest of the song and how we see it, and perhaps that’s exactly right: it doesn’t really matter – he’s come to (or near to) the end of his life and his house is his coffin; if not dead then he is as good as dead… Whether looking back from the grave, or living with nothing to look forward to, there’s no hope.

For I am lonely, alone in a box of stone

They claim to love me, but they’re all lying

I’ve been lonely, alone in a box of my own

And this is the place I now belong

There’s lots of emotion just in this segment: I am lonely – either old at the end of my life and no-one comes around, or past the end of my life and just forgotten. Alone in a box of my own – it’s just a thing, maybe worked all my life to buy this house and it’s turned out meaningless because it’s empty (or I just ended up in a coffin anyway). Any that’s where I now belong – no hope, no way out.

It’s my home, home, home, home, home, home, home, home

This might seem like a throwaway line – but the repetition is really effective in emptying the word of any romance or tenderness – like this it’s just a word. The character repeats it, more in resignation than despair (compare this with the anger of “they’re all lying”). We’re left with a feeling of hopelessness and fatalism.

It wasn’t easy getting used to this

I used to scream

It’s not true, that it’s only when the door is locked

That nobody enters

Cos mine has been open till your demise

But none had come, well who am I

What have i done wrong?

This part feels more like the despair of being left alone at the end of life (partially by death – whose demise? his last so-called friend? we don’t know – but in general by apathy and disinterest), followed by the resignation. “I used to scream” says it all. But he got used to it. No hope. Slam. 

Also, we like the way that the “it’s only when the door is locked” lines don’t quite scan and come out half-spoken: we understand that this is what he really feels so he needs to express it, without compromise, and breaking the rhythm like this makes it unmissable. SongExpresso is reminded of Billy Joel’s non-rhymes.

I’ve been lonely, alone in a box of my own

They claim to be near me but they were all lying, it’s not true

I’ve been lonely, alone in a box of stone

This is the place I now belong

We’ve had all this before – but this is more so – the lines “they were all lying, it’s not true” are an angry statement of fact. This is how it is, without nuance or exception.

It’s my home, home, home, home, home, home, home, home

Friends, I have met

Lovers have slept and wept

Promises to stay have never been kept

This bare truth of which most won’t share

I hope you share, I hope you share

What about this part? It’s almost as if the lies and the abandonment are worse than never having had any human contact at all. And “most won’t share” – because we’re all selfish. Except, you dear listener, might you understand and be good to someone like me? He hopes not for himself but for others.

Cos I’ve been lonely

Alone in a box of my own

They claim to love me and be near me

But they are all lying

I have been lonely, alone in a box of my own

And this is the place I now belong

Its my home, home, home, home, home, home, home, home

The ending is a bit breathless… not of desperation, but final breaths?

So, although this may not be our style, or topic, and we normally wouldn’t think of packing a song so full of such varied ingredients, what can we take away and use?

  • consistency: while the song has its rhythmic ebbs and flows, the lyrics consistently support and return to the feeling of hopelessness. As well expressed in this article, don’t ever break the mood, always try to have everything keep building it up.
  • breaking the rhythm: SongExpresso finds the “it’s not true”, “they’re all lying” interjections really effective – they break out from established rhythm and verge on being a bit “shouty”. This makes the anger palpable and impossible to ignore. Can we try this? Can we take a key line that we don’t want the listener to forget and just speak or shout it? A technique not to be overused, for sure. What about the other way round? A metal song with a tender interlude in which we really hear the words before going back to full volume? Why not? If what’s in the break is important, then giving it its own oasis can make it stand out from the sand.
  • repetition: “home, home, home” – we may not have much opportunity to ever reproduce this. But here it is super-effective, because it unloads the word of all symbolism or romance. So think of a symbolic object – wedding ring, feather, pyramid, diploma, autograph, pet… repeat ten times and the symbolism falls away – it just becomes a thing, just a word.
  • reduction: “box” is the reduction to its lowest form of the home or house (or coffin). A perfect technique for the theme of this song – material things are meaningless and powerless to affect the writer’s hopelessness. So maybe we might also try this: compare: clothes vs. cloth; banknotes vs. paper; wine cellar vs. hole full of glass. The thesaurus doesn’t necessarily get us here – it’s really a type of metaphor, or some other figure of speech. (SongExpresso refuses to go onto Wikipedia in order to find the Greek word for this and pretend that we use these terms every day…) This one seems to work only in a disdainful, reductive way: SongExpresso doesn’t really see much mileage in calling paper “potential banknotes”. Though we’re intrigued by the idea of “glass aspiring to be a wine bottle”… Got any good examples to share (of either)?


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