Gil Scott-Heron – I’m New Here Review
There were few voices that articulated the anxious, fractured state of America in the 1970s and early 80s as well as the clear baritone of Gil Scott-Heron. As a spoken-word artist and poet, he could pinpoint the fissures in the American dream and exorcise them with a wit that blended righteous anger and arch sarcasm. As a singer he could envelop those same uncomfortable confrontations in a rich, emotional tone that brought out the empathetic face of unrest. Yet except for a chorus cameo on Blackalicious’ “First in Flight” and a memorable shout-out on LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge”, he was rarely heard or cited in the early years of America’s great post-traumatic decade, even if his pained depiction of “a nation that just can’t stand much more” in “Winter in America” rang as true in 2002 as it did in 1975.
Instead, Scott-Heron spent much of the 00s in and out of prison on drug charges, adding onto a long hiatus that saw him turn away from the record industry in favor of live performance and writing. Between 1983 and 2009, he released only one studio album, 1994′s Spirits, so issuing his first in 16 years could’ve been rife with potential for a pent-up analysis of everything that’s happened in the process of race relations and American culture over the last couple decades. Yet I’m New Here sees an incisive political voice turning inwards, not protesting the doings of the greater world but crafting a frank confessional over the state of his own. He does this allusively, through cover songs and short soundbite interludes and original compositions that feel like sparse flashes of a deep, once-dormant creative impulse. Yet it still feels honest, like something said out of necessity instead of opportunity, and the result is an album that engages with the idea of loneliness in exceptional ways.
I’m New Here is bookended with a two-part spoken-word track that sounds like a metatextual stunt: the quintessential hip-hop prototype discussing his upbringing over a loop of the intro to Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”, returning the nod towards “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” that underpinned Late Registration’s “My Way Home”. But “On Coming From a Broken Home” is a powerful mission of purpose that sets the tone for the rest of the album, a reflection of his upbringing that made him the man he is today. “Broken Home” pays homage to the women in his family and the strengths they passed on to him; other interludes hint at darkly comic acknowledgements of wrongdoing, modest but defiant statements of enduring survival, and an admission that even his less desirable personality traits are an inseparable part of his identity.
Those brief interstitial statements link pieces of brain-wracked guilt and anxiety that rank as truly haunting moments: “Where Did the Night Go”, a study in lonely insomnia and the inability to communicate with someone he loves, and the confession in “New York Is Killing Me” that the city that held him in an alienating grasp for so long– “eight million people, and I didn’t have a single friend”– only makes him long for the home in Tennessee he left at 13 after his grandmother died. It’s an interesting contrast to the sentiment of his 1976 song “New York City”, where he sang of a metropolis he loved because it reminded him of himself. Either the personalities of the man and the city have diverged too much, or they’ve gotten too close for comfort.
But the most noticeable thing about Scott-Heron on this album to anyone familiar with his work is how worn his voice sounds. It’s raspier and age-weathered, less agile, and occasionally prone to letting words slur and melt into each other instead of leaping out as they did back in the 70s. But Richard Russell, the album’s producer and owner of XL Recordings, hit on the idea of recasting a man who came up through soul-jazz as a grizzled blues performer, and setting Scott-Heron against sandblasted folk and heavy, borderline-industrial beats augments the rawness of his voice well. Three songs reveal him as an adept interpreter of three generations’ worth of roots music: Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil” rendered as vintage Massive Attack, a minimalist, piano-driven orchestral reworking of the Brook Benton-written Bobby “Blue” Bland classic “I’ll Take Care of You”, and the unexpected but deftly claimed title track, sourced from Smog. And two spare, static-textured cuts late in the album, “Running” and “The Crutch”, give his equally-gritty voice a fitting place in the post-Burial strain of bass music.
For an album that comes so far after its creator’s last trip to the studio, it’s a bit of a relief that the only cause for disappointment is its brief length. I’m New Here is less than half an hour, though in that short span it does the impressive job of reviving an artist that’s been out of the spotlight far too long and setting him up for a new incarnation as an elder statesman of modern roots music. Comparisons have been made to what Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash in the 90s, and the parallels are there: I’m New Here and American Recordings are both cover-heavy, starkly-produced releases where rebellious icons become reflective as they hit their sixties. If Gil Scott-Heron’s creative resurgence continues after this reintroduction to his poignantly aging voice, we could be looking at one of the most memorably resurrected careers of our time– a man renewed.