Gil Scott-Heron - I'm New Here Album Review
Attempting to document Gil Scott-Heron's life and career in the space of a few hundred words is an exercise in futility, so I direct you when this piece is finished to somewhere on the internet for a biography. What you need to know right now is that the adopted New Yorker is widely credited with laying the foundations in the 1970's for what would become hip-hop, coined the phrase 'The Revolution will be televised' and was an uncompromising voice of radical American politics in the Watergate era. In recent years however he'd increasingly existed more like a character from one of his own stories of urban struggle: twice imprisoned for drugs offences, he's also faced speculation around domestic violence and the possibility that he may be HIV positive.
All of this made a follow up to 1994's Spirits increasingly unlikely, but thanks to the perseverance of one man - XL Recordings impresario Richard Russell - I'm New Here heralds the return of Scott-Heron as a creative force to be reckoned with.
That's not to say that it's an easy work to digest. Recorded over a two year period that included a temporary hiatus due to jail, Russell oversaw the project himself, coaxing this collection of poems, songs and conversational snippets into a remarkably cohesive piece of modern urban music.
Beginning and ending with warm poetic reflections on the powerful influence of women on his upbringing ('On Coming From A Broken Home Parts 1 & 2'), a running time of less than thirty minutes might in some cases suggest a lack of ideas, but stripped of unnecessary props I'm New Here is as nakedly powerful as any record you'll hear in 2010.
Certainly few artists will offer up a portrait of such abrasive self-analysis, Scott-Heron at one point damning himself laconically with the words 'If you've gotta pay for things that you've done wrong, I gotta a big bill comin''. Soul-selling Delta Blues icon Robert Johnson has been covered many times, but you sense that here that 'Me And The Devil' (Featuring an anonymous turn from Damon Albarn) is more a playfully ironic choice of muse given the singer's own apparent demons.
If Johnson's end was a murky one, his modern contemporary is convinced that the modern day phenomenon of life on the street will account for him, as 'New York Is Killing Me' testifies. The song itself is a bridge between the two artists, a dazzling piece of neo blues, the sounds of the crossroads fed through a twenty first century convection of fractured bass-synths and eerie keyboard swatches. The dynamic centrifuge around which the rest spins, it contrasts sharply with the more straightforward jazz inflections of 'I'll Take Care of You', or the brooding folk of the title track.
I'm New Here defies categorisation. And it may be that in the years since his heyday, the man who inspired the likes of Public Enemy and Tribe Called Quest has lost touch with an audience that's moved on culturally. It may even be his fate to be left to educate the same type of middle class white folks who fourty years ago closed their ears ignored his message, fleeing to the suburbs and digging on Norman Rockwell instead. But the final word needs to go Scott-Heron himself, as captured by Russell and published recently by the NME: 'I don't see anything special when I look at me. If you take yourself too seriously you'll die a thousand deaths between here and the corner'. Amen to that.