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Gil Scott-Heron - I’m New Here

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Artist: Gil Scott-Heron

Album: I’m New Here

Label: XL

Review date: Feb. 9, 2010

Gil Scott-Heron is a great poet. Like certain great poets, he has not only been witness to the upheavals of his time, but in some ways embodies the unrest he reported. He’s been hamstrung over the last decade, with stints in prison for cocaine possession, but I’m New Here marks his return to music and does so tastefully.

Scott-Heron and XL label boss Richard Russell (who approached and signed GSH during his imprisonment, and produces here) are clearly aware of the options available to out-of-commission icons — they stay well away from nostalgia and don’t attempt a half-baked reinvention. Neither do they pander to genres that might see Scott-Heron as a forefather: the sonic template for the album is dubstep, not hip hop, a council flat starkness an ocean away from the fiery soul-jazz often associated with Scott-Heron’s work. It’s a gentle way of reminding that, despite personal troubles and the threat of irrelevance, Scott-Heron wants to connect to the listener through his observations, not through claims of ownership or significance.

I’m New Here sounds sober, but not chastened. It’s a deliberately slight collection of songs, which includes three covers, five interludes, and a couple originals, of which the longest is 4:30 and the shortest 0:09; it is about 28 minutes long in all. The album has been accompanied by a two videos: the video for the Robert Johnson cover "Me And The Devil" is the more visually striking, but the in-studio footage of "Where Did The Night Go" better captures the album’s grainy, nocturnal vibe. The song picks up after a bout of insomnia: he was up late drinking beer, playing records, and trying to start a letter to an ex and then suddenly he’s pulling on socks and thinking about blowing off work to continue his streak of writer’s block. The story’s over before it really starts, and even as it seems to be primarily about a collapsed relationship, it also has much to say about the way work colonizes and shapes the time we spend away from it.

Russell’s production work sounds risky in theory: though he switches genre subtly to suit his material (the Brook Benton cover "I’ll Take Care of You" gets a subdued piano-and-strings treatment), the sonic template for I’m New Here comes from a Portishead take on dubstep. The double-dutch clapping and buried, backward slide guitar in "New York Is Killing Me" is undercut by destroyed bass drum thumps, while "Where Did The Night Go"‘s rubbery synth heartbeat sounds like an apocalypse countdown clock. The dread isn’t forced or cheesy, though, and each track draws attention on the grain of GSH’s croaky voice, like a Chuck Close photo focuses on pores.

But there’s also something tiresome about this kind of monumentality. Anything less would be disrespectful, and this collaboration does add another facet to Scott-Heron’s public persona — it’s not merely a recuperation or a necrophilic attempt to insist on Heron’s Importance. While I’m New Here has already garnered comparisons with Rick Rubin’s work with Johnny Cash, this album’s austerity puts it more in the ranks of bizarro reduxes like Scott Walker’s The Drift. That’s impressive company, but even with its slight runtime, it’s hard to imagine feeling compelled to come back to I’m New Here once you’ve understood what’s going on.

In an album this short, and in a career this long, the only theme that reverberates here is "coming full circle," as he sings in the Smog cover that gives the album its title. Like Callahan, Heron does an impressive job here channeling his own kind of deeply American "beginner’s mind." It’s an interesting thing to ponder, but the atmosphere in this kind of gray-scale character study is a little too thin to really breathe deep.

By Brandon Bussolini

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