Gil Scott-Heron: “I’m New Here”
Don’t call it a comeback; Gil Scott-Heron’s cheekily titled I’m New Here is a damn near resurrection, hailing not only his return to recording after fifteen years in the wasteland, but essentially his return to the land of the living, coming as it does on the heels of prison time for drug-related charges and in the midst of his ongoing struggles with HIV. So you can forgive him if the tone of this one isn’t that of triumph so much as mere survival. Scott-Heron isn’t complaining, though; these songs are marked by a contentment that comes from wisdom, years of hard living having filled every whiskey-soaked crack in his voice with empathy and compassion.
This is an album about lessons learned the heard way– and not, interestingly enough, about the signs of the times or the state of the union circa 2010. Those who’ve long followed Scott-Heron would be forgiven for thinking that his return to recording was prompted by the election of Barack Obama– certainly, the artist’s history of lefty polemics is unquestionable– but the heart of this record has less to do with change we can believe in, more to do with all the things that have stayed the same. The album is bookended by a two-part piece called “On Coming from a Broken Home,” and is the closest thing to a social statement on the whole record; and of course, broken homes are nothing new, nor is the home in question truly broken. Rather, it’s an autobiographical piece about Scott-Heron’s upbringing by his grandmother, and he is insistent that there was so much love and support in the household that it was anything but dysfunctional. “I came from what they called a broken home,” he says, “But if they had ever really called at our house, they would have known how wrong they were.”
But the song is not just a tribute to a loving grandmother; it’s a song about the realities of hurt, about the consequences of death, about the real possibility of survival even after something as traumatizing as a parent’s death. And it’s about the common grace of homes that have lost loved ones, but are not lacking in love. The song, then, and the album as well, are not mere autobiographies, but are, rather, expressions of earned wisdom: They are rooted in the artist’s own struggles, but are not in any strict or confining sense “about” him or his life.
Many of these songs of experience are not songs at all, strictly speaking; the album leans fairly heavily on spoken-word pieces, tracing a clear line back to the kind of performance poetry that Scott-Heron built his early career on. But this is neither an album that embraces nor shuns nostalgia, neither romanticizing the past nor fetishizing the present, and that’s reflected in the album’s production. Richard Russell, the head of XL records and the man who approached Scott-Heron in prison about making this recording, is a shrewd guy who wisely avoids both playing up Scott-Heron’s “godfather of rap” cred with nods to modern hip-hop and taking the Rick Rubin approach of simply sticking his man in an empty room with an acoustic guitar and pressing “record.” Instead, he gives the songs just the treatment that they need: There are some hip-hop beats, yes, but also moody string arrangements and spooky, claustrophobic atmospherics that are borrowed from dubstep.
And that’s the ideal sound for a record like this– a record that is content and that exudes wisdom, yes, but also a record that is, quite literally, haunted. Scott-Heron imagines death circling like a vulture, waiting to collect our souls. He imagines addiction as an insatiable monster that must always be fed. Temptation is a very real thing, particularly when the Devil shows up at his door and makes him an offer he can’t refuse.
That last one, by the way, is from Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil,” and its presence here illustrates just how specific a tale Scott-Heron and Russell are trying to tell, and just how little excess they’re willing to allow on this slim, 28-minute recording: Even when they aren’t actually Scott-Heron’s songs, they’re telling his story. In addition to “Me and the Devil,” he borrows spare parts from an old John Lee Hooker blues for “New York is Killing Me,” a tough song about the vices of modern living, and the title song is a number by indie rocker Bill Callahan, of all people; Scott-Heron understands it ironies but mostly plays it straight, turning it into an unlikely but profound song of redemption.
And there is redemption here, even in the sheer existence of this album, everything about which– its leanness, its honesty, its shrewd production– suggests that, as an artist, Gil Scott-Heron isn’t finished, nor could be be if he wanted to. This album feels like it was made because it’s a story that simply has to be told. In Richard Russell, Scott-Heron has found the perfect collaborator, and in this album, he’s given his story its perfect telling, one in which not a single note is wasted on flash or sentimentality, on easy nostalgia or empty style; the sum and total of this record is dedicated to hard truth-telling, and if that doesn’t make it an easy album, it does make it an invaluable one.