Saturday, February 13, 2010

Gil Scott-Heron — I'm New Here

I'm New Here is the pseudo-hip hop, programmed beat heavy, spoken word dominated album that Gil Scott-Heron should have made twenty five years ago.

Except, twenty five years ago, he had way too much living to do to be able to make an album of this magnitude. He reacquired a heroin habit, kicked it again, acquired a cocaine habit, contracted AIDS and spent roughly eighteen months in prison during his "time off." Make no mistakes: Gil Scott-Heron's latest is a soul-wrenching, somewhat dreary, but always positive leaning (as obscure as that lean may be) affair that will leave the astute listener in a state of mental discomfort.

As the best of most music usually does.

It's as relateable as any of Gil's past music, but it's just confrontationally confessional. Amidst mentions of smoking crack and thoughts on what to do with his corpse after his soul passes, you get the bare naked recollections of a man who loved his grandmother, still loves his ex and still feels like an insecure black male because he was raised by women in a male-dominated western world. His view is one of the most unique ever recorded. Truly, the man packs more quotables into twenty eight minutes than most writers would hope to distribute over their entire careers.

I can't even begin to think of highlights. I'm New Here doesn't really feel like a group of songs as much as it does a single work of percussive bursts of introspective knowledge from one of the most solitary and divided talents of the past few generations. I purchased the album on vinyl and was rewarded with a coupon for an MP3 download of the entire album that added seven bonus tracks. These tracks only add to the singular experience of I'm New Here. Gil revisits three of his past classics ("Home is Where the Hatred Is?", "Is That Jazz?" and "Winter In America"; all solo vocal and piano takes: awesome) and some outtakes from the proper album sessions are included as well. Oh, and something that must be an outtake from Bridges or Secrets. Yeah, I nearly shit myself when I heard "My Cloud" because it clearly dates from the late 70's, just judging from Gil's voice. And guess what? It's right at home with this material. An excellent bonus. And very much satisfying because of the shortness of the proper album.

As someone who has listened to Gil's music for over half of my life, this album feels extremely revelatory. As good as Spirits was, it was stagnant. It was Gil treading water. Sure, better than most. But he could've done better. And, with I'm New Here, he took his time, but not only did he do better, he made an album that updates his classic sound, but still sits right next to that vintage material. The programmed beats and synth patches may associate it more with this era, but Gil's grasp on musical space and shying away from any sort of production (not to mention, overproduction) keeps things in perspective and context.

Sure, he doesn't sing as much as he used to, but that's only because his singing voice is pretty much shot by this point. His spoken word pieces have gone from scathing socio-political brain food to aggressively introspective mind movies that are nothing short of mini-masterpieces. And his singing pieces have remained aggressively introspective mind movies that are nothing short of soothing mini-masterpieces. His voice just isn't quite as soothing as it once was. But it is still as resonating as ever. Because of the rough gravely nature that it's taken on, perhaps even more so these days.

Make no mistake: I'm New Here is a scatterbrained, contradictory, in the moment account of a man who practically has defined the terms in his music and personal life throughout the years. The thing is: previously the music and the man existed independent of each other and I'm New Here could quite possibly be the first instance of the music and the man colliding head on for the first time ever.

If he never makes another album, at least his last will also be one of his very best.



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