The long-disappeared singer/poet who influenced hip-hop reappears, hesitantly, without joy.
In the early 1970s, Gil Scott-Heron popped onto the scene as a soul poet with jazz leanings; not just another Bill Withers, but a political voice with a poet's skill. His spoken-voice work had punch and topicality. "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and "Johannesburg" were calls to action: Stokely Carmichael if he'd had the groove of Ray Charles. "The Bottle" was a poignant story of the streets: Richard Wright as sung by a husky-voiced Marvin Gaye. To paraphrase Chuck D, Gil Scott-Heron's music was a kind of CNN for black neighborhoods, prefiguring hip-hop by several years. It grew from the Last Poets, but it also had the funky swing of Horace Silver or Herbie Hancock -- or Otis Redding. Pieces of a Man and Winter in America (collaborations with Brian Jackson) were classics beyond category.
Yet, even as he became one of the voices prominently to question the conservative policies of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, Scott-Heron's fortunes fell. He was dropped by Arista in 1985 and recorded only sporadically from 1982 onward. His concerts could be brilliant or poorly shambling -- and among fans there wasn't much question that the singer was dealing with personal problems. Cocaine arrests in the last ten years made public what was already plain.
So a new record by Gil Scott-Heron in 2010 brings your ears to attention. Two decades have passed since the man truly laid it out for us. So much has happened in so many ways and places. What might Gil have to say about it? And in a world where hip-hop -- a style that the man without doubt helped to create -- has risen to the top, how would he say his piece?
With expectations naturally raised too high, there comes the fall.
I'm New Here is a thin affair -- musically weak and lyrically narrow. The songs are philosophical and personal rather than social or political, yet they don't feel powerfully real. Scott-Heron's voice fleetingly recaptures its pliant soul, but it mainly grumbles and crackles with time. The instrumental accompaniment is neither fluid like jazz nor dense and daring like the best hip-hop. Instead, it feels mechanical and infinitely too easy, like a creative kid with a Casio keyboard and Garageband. If you hoped that Scott-Heron would address Obama or Iraq or Katrina or Amadou Diallo, then you will be disappointed.
Musically, I'm New Here contains only four "songs" in the regular sense among its 15 tracks. "New York Is Killing Me" and "Me and the Devil" are lyrically crafted as straight 12-bar blues, with a pair of repeated lines and a response in each chorus. Scott-Heron can sing this kind of thing in his sleep, and these tunes are slight efforts. "New York" is set up over a groovy little clap track and a variety of other simple underpinnings. Gil rasps out his blues couplets, but they aren't about much. A few background singers color it, but it mainly sounds dry and pseudo-menacing. Some fade-outs and filters change the sound, but here's what you feel in the end: it's dull.
"Me and the Devil" is accompanied by a thudding industrial groove that combines clanging, buzzing synths, and syncopated hand claps. Scott-Heron's voice, once a wonderful, rubbery instrument, is recognizable from the drop because it still carries some of the limber fun of his 1970s material. But mostly it's weary, and the contrast of his Old Cat Blues styling against a flat/industrial accompaniment gives off a whiff of Tom Waits. Maybe interesting?
The dilemma is this: hearing Gil Scott-Heron turned into a simulacrum of Tom Waits is backwards at best. Gil was an innovator back when Waits was still doing his jivey faux-jazz stuff. If you love Waits's "Down in the Hole" (later used as the theme to TV's great The Wire), then "Me and the Devil" is similar (lyrically and musically) but not as limber or interesting or rich. And there's the shame. Gil Scott Heron should be schooling Tom Waits, not the other way around.
The two other tunes are worth your ear. "I'm New Here" is bold: Scott-Heron singing over a lone acoustic guitar, his voice buzzing seriously, telling some stories about his lonely existence. A whole lot of freak-folk indie hipsters would kill to have recorded this. "I'll Take Care of You" is the only thing here that might have made the cut in Scott-Heron's heyday, but only as a demo for a better recording. A pungent acoustic piano part sits under a clear melody as the singer devotes himself to a friend. Some simple string parts add drama as the tune shifts chords and goes for the gut. But it's still static, not a genuine performance.
The remainder of the recording is fairly dreary spoken word work. Scott-Heron seems to be reflecting on his life, and the poetry is honorable and rhythmic. "Where Did the Night Go", for example, effectively uses simple images of a man writing letters on "unlined paper" or listening to a stack of records. But too much of this work is unimaginative -- Scott-Heron's voice echoed a bit, laid over an ominous industrial soundscape, stuttered by a producer (Richard Russell) who simply was not up to this project.
It's a sad and interesting project, I'm New Here. It reminds you of a great or even revolutionary voice, and it will send you back to your LP copy of From South Africa to South Africa or your single of "Angel Dust". But it will bewilder younger listeners who may have heard that this guy was the missing link on the way to A Tribe Called Quest or Public Enemy. It makes you think about two decades of silence, and it breaks that silence in too frail, too derivative, and too cold a way.
It also makes you wish Gil Scott-Heron well -- and hope that I'm New Here is merely a throat clearing for something more substantial to come.