Album Review: Gil Scott-Heron – I’m New Here

February 2010 revealed a jewel in the crown of super-sonic XL Recordings – whose coat of arms reads: Radiohead, the White Stripes, Basement Jaxx, Vampire Weekend, Ratatat, to name but a few – with the musician, poet, novelist, activist, the extraordinaire and un-classifiable Gil Scott-Heron. Music messenger Richard Russell, XL’s founder, sealed the production of Gil Scott-Heron’s first album in 16 years: I’m New Here, a 28 minute LP of 15 tracks. 60 years-old in body, ageless in Soul and perhaps even soul. The poet has returned, bearing an aura on a par with that of the most ancient and potent, wise and mischievous gods. But had he ever left?

He once said “And still we are victims of word games, semantics is always a bitch”, a line that can certainly apply to the ever-obsessive twitch of the industry to box people in illusory neat categories. Once again, GSH evades the suffocating walls of critic-made criteria, untying bounds with his piano-enamoured fingers, with acoustic guitar strokes and deeply personal lyrics.

I’m New Here is built on alternating spoken poetry, sung poetry and interludes (minute exerpts of GSH conversing on key subject matters, whose titles alone written side-by-side form another poem). The space musical instruments take per se is spartan. It is another kind of musicality: GSH’s barritone, marvelously nicotined, voice and his words. In 2010, the sound of breaking categorical barriers and building anew, Gil Scott-Heron’s way, sounds like this:

No, you’re not imagining, it is Kanye West‘s ‘Flashing Lights’ feat. Dwele that supports Scott-Heron’s moving tribute to his grandmother Lilly Scott. ‘On coming from a broken home Part 1’, the first title of this album, is a moving piece dedicated to the woman who raised him in Tenessee, until he left for New York when she passed away: ‘I loved her from the absolute marrow of my bones’. His was ‘a family that contradicts the concepts, heard the rules but wouldn’t accept’. Part 2 of this tribute closes the album round-circle. It is dedicated to his mother and to women: ‘My life has been guided by women’, ‘because of them I’m a man’, ‘God bless you mama and thank you’.

This album is no doubt short yet it is loaded: with references – musical, literary, cultural – and with clotted blood-ink from a life of battles and love wounds. ‘Me And The Devil’, a song from blues and jazz legend Robert Johnson, is revisited by the warmth and depth of Scott-Heron’s voice that takes possession of the body of this song like a spirit master. ‘I’m New Here’, a song by Smog (Bill Callahan), is a duo, voice and acoustic guitar: ‘I did not become someone different, that I did not want to be’, ‘Turn round turn round you may come full circle, and be new here again’. The dark electricity of violins envelops the delivery of his well-known poem ‘Your Soul and Mine’. ‘I’ll Take Care of You’, a love song by Brook Benton, flows on piano-rivers of blues until it reaches ‘Where did the night go’.

The more substantial ‘New York Is Killing Me’ is a track of heart-beats caught by hand claps, synth overdubs and gospel vocals. Be ready for the guitar play to draw your soul, ‘Lord have mercy, mercy on me’.  ‘Running’ explores this familiar coinage: running out of time, away, from fear, from ‘you’, for cover, for your life – and ends with ‘The Crutch’, a spoken piece that describes in war-like beats, military march style, the life of an unamed ‘he’.

Gil Scott-Heron’s first novel ‘The Vulture’ was not paced by chapters but by ‘Phases’. His presence in writing and music continues thus, in phases, it had not stopped. As a fan, I was delighted to discover and rediscover his much missed presence. Upon hearing that the music of the last track does not close but continues, perennial, my ears hope it is a sign his next move is ready, awaiting close in the warm shadow of his voice.

–Nadia Ghanem

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