Liam Butler: Gil Scott Heron – I’m New Here

Gil Scott Heron

I’d be lying if I said that I’d followed Gil Scott-Heron’s career with a keen eye. My curiosity blossomed when I learned that he had recorded a Smog cover for his first album in 16 years. One could liken it to Socrates’ ‘cave analogy’ from Plato’s ‘The Republic’ and maybe divulge into how listening to the album gave me a renewed insight into the idea of a ‘golden mean’ within aesthetics but that would be pretentious and mostly bullshit. In fact my only nugget of knowledge on Gil Scott-Heron prior to 2010 was his spoken word polemic I would often hear played on my brother’s old turntables that was always synonymous with the ‘birth of rap’ “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. From reading more on his early career he channelled political rebellion, sneered at popular culture and critiqued conservative American attitudes with his music throughout the 70s and 80s, his aggressive yet witty, lyrical style respectfully earning him the title “Godfather of Hip Hop”. As stated, this is his first album in 16 years and not through choice. The last two decades have not been kind to the poetic heretic and innovator. Spells in and out of jail for drug possession and use has meant a lack of output and consequently a lack of interest or coverage. Some of his vocals for the album were actually recorded while serving a term in Riker’s prison.

Sometimes judging whether an album is any good is hearing it at the right time. When I first heard Gil Scott-Heron’s “I’m New Here” I was in the middle of the perfunctory task of scanning the web for new employment or some form of career development. Needless to say the task was fruitless other than discovering an emotionally potent and yet cerebral album. It begins and ends with the powerful yet down-tempo ‘On Coming From A Broken Home’ a tribute to his grandmother’s hand in raising him in difficult circumstances. Scott-Heron’s vocals accompanied by minimalist electronic ambience sets the mood for both trauma and hope, this feels like the album’s theme. Scott-Heron seeks redemption through overcoming tragedy, to shake the albatross from around his neck not just from the years of drug abuse and incarceration but maybe from stunting his creativity. From the opening track it feels as though his creativity has not been stunted at all. ‘Me And The Devil’ follows, a Robert Johnson cover where Scott-Heron belts out the words in his baritone along to an eerie beat, this man knows the blues all too well and you can hear sincerity. The title track ‘I’m New Here’ is my favourite. Not because it is a cover of a Smog song, the causal event of me exploring this album. Nor because of the arrangements and acoustics appealing to my love of all things lo-fi because the song represents how Gil Scott-Heron can always hope for redemption with Bill Callahan’s lyrics “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone, You can always turn it around”. ‘Where Did The Night Go’ although short is a nightmarish self-inquiry into how the time disappeared without memory. Perhaps a reflection on the decade lost. ‘New York Is Killing Me’ feels like one foot in the past and one foot in the future, half blues, half hip hop. My only gripe is that the album clocks in shy of half an hour at 28mins.

 

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Unless other submissions turn up (there may be some misc. February reviews), this is the end of the Jan Review bit for another year. Thanks to everyone that took part in submitting something – they were all, without exception, highly entertaining reads. February updates include a long piece about ‘the home’ in relation to M.R.James, Leafcutter John, The Shining, Jonathan Miller, and, of course, J.G. Ballard and an update to the WDT/VSTM archive.

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