“I’m New Here” – a new album from Gil Scott-Heron

At 60 years old, Gil Scott-Heron has a new album out, his first in 16 years. “I’m New Here” was released by independent label XL Recordings in early February.

Gil Scott-Heron - "I'm New Here"

Work began on the album in 2007 after Scott-Heron’s release from prison on drug charges, but the bulk of the album was recorded over the course of 2009, which also saw the launching of an official Gil Scott-Heron website, gilscottheron.net, with a song off the new album, “Where Did The Night Go,” available as a free download from the site.

“I’m New Here” has already received widespread critical praise and attention. Spin Magazine gave it 7/10 and described it as not “so much a comeback as a testament to spiritual resilience.” Rolling Stone called it “a steely blues record at heart — the sound of a damaged man staring in the mirror without self-pity but not without hope.” Pitchfork described “I’m New Here” as “an album that engages with the idea of loneliness in exceptional ways” and welcomed Gil Scott-Heron’s “creative resurgence,” while Slant magazine praised it as “a masterfully stark album.” In the British GuardianJude Rogers declared it one of the next decade’s best records, and the first single off the album, “Me and the Devil,” as well as other tracks have been in heavy rotation on BBC Radio. Not all the coverage has been entirely positive, though – a Los Angeles Times blog was uncertain how the album would fit into the musical landscape and described it as “a brooding thing to take in one sitting.”

“Me and the Devil” – a cover of Robert Johnson‘s “Me and the Devil Blues” – is one of the standout tracks on the album. Over a fairly sparse but intense drum n bass sounding groove, Gil Scott-Heron’s new voice – raspy, weathered, a little slurred – growls out the lyrics [below], which are given extra feeling and urgency by knowledge of the devils that have been doggin’ Scott-Heron over the last 10 or 15 years. It’s an amazing song, and one I can’t stop playing.

There is a terrific music video to accompany the single – one that draws on voodoo, the cult film “The Wanderers,” and again Scott-Heron’s recent troubles for its images [see below].

The first track on the album, “On Coming From A Broken Home (Part 1),” is more like the Gil Scott-Heron of old – a spoken word poem [lyrics below] over a musical background. But beyond that formal quality, the similarities largely end. Instead of an acoustic accompaniment, Scott-Heron’s words are spoken over a DJ-inspired groove of sampled sounds, taken from some of the R&B artists who have been sampling Scott-Heron for years. And where in the past Scott-Heron’s poems have engaged with larger, public themes, been hortative – such as in “No Knock” and “B Movie” – “Broken Home” is deeply personal, autobiographical. In that sense, it is the perfect intro to the album – which was always going to be read in terms of Scott-Heron’s recent life – in taking on the autobiographical project with directness and intelligence.

“Broken Home” also complicates some simple biographical readings of the album, and simplistic understandings of the “tragedy” of Gil Scott-Heron’s recent years, his struggles with drugs (especially crack) and his troubles with the law. Where some might try to read his troubles back into family dysfunction, Gil Scott-Heron rejects the normal reading of a “broken home” and how “every ologist” would interpret his childhood. He talks about being raised by his grandmother, and how it was only after her death that his home was broken.

Here, Gil Scott-Heron is also engaging with an ongoing discussion within the African American community, attempting to come to terms with and shape the debate about the absence of male role models in African American families. He is also being more personal than he has ever been before – and in starting the album with “a special tribute” to his family, especially his grandmother Lily Scott, he seems to be trying to take responsibility for the mess of his latter years, rather than shift it to what “every ologist” might cite as the root of his problems. This lack of self-pity, and willingness to stare his past and his problems in the eye, is characteristic of the album as a whole.

You can stream the whole album on gilscottheron.net

Oddly, “I’m New Here” seems to be getting more attention in Britain than in the United States. In addition to being played extensively on the BBC, the album has been reviewed – positively – in The Guardian, The Financial Times, Telegraph, The Sunday Times and elsewhere. In the USA, reviews seem to be more limited to smaller and more music-specific media outlets such as Rolling Stone and Spin. Online sales of the CD seem to reflect the greater interest in Britain; while sales on Amazon.com are strong, with the album ranked at #139 overall, on the UK Amazon site “I’m New Here” is ranked 55th (and rising fast it would seem).

For more…

Some Lyrics

“On Coming From a Broken Home (Part 1)

I want to make this a special tribute
to a family that contradicts the concepts
heard the rules but wouldn’t accept
and women-folk raised me
and I was full grown
before I knew
I came from a broken home

Sent to live with my grandma down south
where my uncle was leaving
and my grandfather had just left for heaven they said
and as every ologist would certainly note
I had no strong male figure, right?

But Lily Scott was absolutely not your mail order,
room service, type-cast black grandmother.
I was moved in with her – temporarily, just until things were patched.
Til this was patched and til that was patched,
until I became at 3, 4, 5,6 ,7, 8, 9 and 10
the patch that held Lily Scott who held me
and like them 4 I become one more
and I loved her from the absolute marrow of my bones
and we was holdin on.
I come from a broken home.

She had more then the 5 senses.
She knew more then books could teach
and raised everyone she touched just a little bit higher
and all around her there was a natural sense
as though she sensed what the stars say, what the birds say
what the wind and the clouds say
a sense of soul and self, that African sense.
And she raised me like she raised 4 of her own
and I was hurt and scared and shocked when Lily Scott left suddenly one night
and they sent a limousine from heaven to take her to god, if there is one.
So I knew she had gone
and I came from a broken home

“Me and the Devil”

Early this morning, when you knocked upon my door
Early this morning, when you knocked upon my door
An I say, “Hello Satan, I believe it’s time to go.”

Me and the Devil, walking side by side
Me and the Devil, walking side by side
And I’m gonna see my woman ’til I get satisfied

She say you don’t see why that you will dog me ’round
(spoken) Now babe you know I ain’t do it like that [unclear]
Say don’t see keep on doggin’ me around
Must be that old evil spirit so deep down in the ground

You may bury my body down by the highway side
(spoken) I don’t really care where you bury me when I’m gone
You may bury my body down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride

One response to ““I’m New Here” – a new album from Gil Scott-Heron

  1. Pingback: Gil Scott-Heron, “I’m New Here” – his first album in 16 years « zerode

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