Review: Gil Scott-Heron- I’m New Here
One of the biggest surprises so far this year is that the year’s best blues album comes from the father of rap and that he pulls it off without forsaking his past work in the process.
Gil Scott-Heron is one of the greatest artists of the last century. A multi-faceted talent who could write songs, sing, play piano, and write novels with the best of them. Much of his ’70s output fit squarely within the soul and R&B label, but he is perhaps best known for inventing rap in 1971 when he released “The Revolution will Not Be Televised”.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s his new releases were fewer and farther between and after a series of drug arrests and convictions beginning in 2001 (real drugs, not marijuana) many were convinced that his career was over. Then earlier this year, he released I’m New Here, his first album since 1994. Unlike his earlier albums which were about social problems in America, this one is extremely personal.
I was kind of reluctant to listen to this one to be completely honest, because many times on “comeback albums” by major influences on a genre clueless producers will attempt to somehow prove their influence by updating their sound to what is currently on the top 40. And while there is indeed many elements of modern hip-hop production to be found here, there are also many elements of blues and folk music with Scott-Heron’s completely ravaged voice rising above it all creating something unique. I believe that this production was intentional: it shows the artist in a modern setting, but his lyrics and performance show that he is of a much earlier time and does not belong in this modern world. Scott-Heron clearly is worlds apart from (and worlds ahead of) guys like Lil Wayne, T.I., and Eminem (this is the irony of the album’s title), but here he bridges the gap in black music from blues to hip hop without ever totally being in or out of either genre. In a way it reminded me of the song Johnny Cash did with U2. Cash clearly was out of place amidst that sort of backing, but he pulled it off and as a result the track had an almost supernatural tone.
I’m New Here begins with “On Coming from a Broken Home (Part 1)” where atop a Kanye West sample, Scott-Heron tells of being raised by his grandmother and relates the story of his childhood.
The next track, “Me and the Devil” is perhaps the best Robert Johnson cover I have heard this side of Cream. His singing voice has been wrecked by years of drug abuse and by his delivery he sounds as if he has lived the lyrics to this tune. The haunting production on this track shows once again that while the album is modern, the artist is very much of another time.
The Bill Callahan-penned title track follows and it features just an acoustic guitar and the artist’s voice. The whole track conveys a confessional tone with hints of humor occasionally (“She said I had an ego on me the size of Texas/But I’m new here and I forget, does that mean big or small?”). But when he sings “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone/You can always turn around” it is clear that he is singing about his own life and struggles with addiction.
“Your Soul and Mine” is a spoken word track about death featuring imagery of vultures. This shows him at the height of his poetic genius. This is followed by a very brief spoken interlude and then a cover of “I’ll Take Care of You,” which was written by Brook Benton and made famous by Bobby “Blue” Bland. The melancholy take on the tune with Scott-Heron’s piano as the primary instrument sounds like something you would hear in a dimly lit, nearly empty inner city bar. Another brief interlude follows where Scott-Heron confesses, “If you gotta to pay for things you’ve done wrong, I’ve got a big bill comin’ at the end of the day.”
“Where Did the Night Go”, a portrait of late-night loneliness is one of the highlights of the album, although it clocks in at barely over a minute. Another very brief spoken interlude follows and then the blues tune “New York is Killing Me”. “I was standin’ there dyin'”, he sings, “and New York was killin’ me/See I need to start over and go back home to Jackson, Tennessee”. A gospel choir joins in toward the end of the track.
There is another short interlude about “certain bad things that have happened” and then the very personal spoken word piece “Running”. He begins by saying, “Because I always feel like running/Not away, because there’s no such place/’Cause if there was I woulda found it by now” and later says “Not running for cover/because if I knew where cover was, I would stay there and never have to run for it”. This is followed by “The Crutch”, a first-person account of being a junkie (“The savage beast that once so soothed his brain/Has reared it’s ugly head and staked his brain”).
The album concludes with another short interlude and then “On Coming from a Broken Home (Part II)”. The track ends with Scott-Heron saying “My life has been guided by women but because of them I am a man/God bless you, mama and thank you”.
The album is very short, clocking in at just over 28 minutes but there also is not a single minute wasted which is more than can be said for most of today’s bloated 70+ minute albums. As I said earlier, this is the best blues album of the year and I mean that in two ways: yes, at times it can be called a blues album stylistically, but the very personal and painful stories could also be classified as nothing else, regardless of the sound behind him. Give this album a try. You may like it. Just don’t expect it to cheer you up.
Where Did the Night Go? by Gil Scott-Heron
New York is Killing Me by Gil Scott-Heron and as an added bonus
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron