It’s been 13 years since Gil Scott-Heron‘s last album. Such an exile is a long time to wait for anything, but it’s been especially true in the case of the patron saint of spoken word soul.
The honorary Godfather of rap and the man who defined an era with the incendiary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised should have found plenty to rail against during the years of the Bush administration, but he spent most of the decade fighting the law and his own personal demons. Now, in Barack Obama’s promised era of hope and change, how does the subject matter of Scott-Heron’s new material pan out?
In the digital era it’s often all too easy to dismiss a piece of work if it doesn’t immediately grab you with a brace of iTunes-friendly singles. I’m New Here is an album in the purest sense; Scott-Heron’s brand of spoken word poetry and frank recollection transcend mere lyrics. It requires undivided attention for its duration. It’s a rare thing these days to come across something that demands such focus from the listener, but then again, few albums display this degree of intelligence.
I’m New Here is produced by XL Recordings’ head honcho Richard Russell, and comparisons with Rick Rubin era Johnny Cash are immediately evoked. Russell provides the sonic glue for the album, laying down minimal beats that complement but never upstage Scott-Heron’s vision. This is at its most effective on Me And The Devil, a dark piece of modern blues floating above a simmering bed of tension. It’s an early candidate for one of 2010’s essential tracks.
The vast majority of I’m New Here sees Scott-Heron looking back on his life. The result is remarkably honest; as he puts it at one stage, “If you have to pay for what you’ve done wrong, then I’ve got a big bill coming”. On Coming From A Broken Home bookends the collection superbly, with Scott-Heron looking back on his early years and challenging sociologists’ pigeon-holing of anything that doesn’t fit in the traditional family unit. The dedication to his grandmother is a particularly touching moment.
The spirit of redemption looms large on the album’s title track, in which Russell replaces brooding electroncia with a Leonard Cohen-esqe guitar, and the soulful vocals on the excellent I’ll Take Care Of You pay tribute to Scott-Heron’s early career in the ’70s. It’s his older and wiser voice that is the star of the album, and the gravelly vocals sound like a man who has sold his soul to the devil at the Crossroads and gone on to fight tooth and nail to get it back.
As the result of three years’ work it does feel too short, and the many interludes of candid conversation make the album feel like it’s been padded out. It’s these aspects that prevent this album from being an unassailable masterpiece; for every moment of brilliance there’s one of frustrating brevity. But brilliance abounds. The highlight is Where Did The Night Go, a dark piece enriched with loneliness and insomnia where Scott-Heron’s prose really shines. Running is also an exemplary piece of poetry in its own right.
Some may find I’m New Here a strange and alienating listen, but those with patience will be well rewarded; most of this album is stunning and so different from the norm that you can’t help but be drawn in. To paraphrase a lyric on the album it’s “hard to get to know and difficult to forget”. It is, ultimately, a remarkably honest and self-reflective collection.