I'm New Here

Gil Scott-Heron

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I'm New Here Review

by Thom Jurek

I’m New Here is a shock. It’s a wallop filled with big nasty beats, a wide range of sonic atmospheres, and more -- sometimes unintentional -- autobiographical intimacy than we’ve heard from Gil Scott-Heron than ever before. Produced by XL Recordings head Richard Russell, I’m New Here is his first record in 16 years. It is a scant 28 minutes and doesn’t need to be a second longer. It's unlike anything he’s previously recorded, though there is metaphoric precedence in his earliest, largely spoken word albums. Its production pushes forcefully at the margins, and Scott-Heron embraces it without a hint of nostalgia. It opens with “On Coming from a Broken Home,” the first of a two-part poem that bookends the album. Over a piano and a sampled string loop (from Kanye West's “Flashing Lights”), he reflects on his upbringing filled with strong female figures and an unconventional structure, with a startling epiphany at the end. It segues immediately into a slamming read of Robert Johnson's “Me and the Devil,” with enormous hip-hop drums, sampled strings, and sonic effects that create a sense of brooding menace as Scott-Heron wails with bracing rawness to hair-raising effect. Just as quickly, the album shifts dramatically. A lone acoustic guitar introduces the Bill Callahan-penned title track. Scott-Heron recites the verse but sings its refrain: “No matter how far wrong gone/You can always turn around.” It feels like he’s speaking into a mirror with a dawning awareness of who -- and what -- he's become as he accepts it. He now owns this song. A Burial-like wall of effects over a cello loop introduces “Your Soul and Mine.” It’s Scott-Heron's unflinching look at death, and the way it feeds, yet ends with a warrior’s words: "So if you see the vulture coming/Flying circles in your mind/Remember there is no escaping/For he will follow close behind/Only promise me a battle/For your soul, and mine." It’s not all darkness, however. A reading of Bobby "Blue" Bland's “I’ll Take Care of You,” features Gil's soulful piano with a small string section. He sings it tenderly, in a now-raspier but still deeply expressive voice; it stands out sonically, but belongs here because of its intimacy. “New York Is Killing Me,” based on a John Lee Hooker blues, has been reinvented with almost entirely new lyrics and arrangement. Singers from the Harlem Gospel Choir; handclaps, bass drums, cymbals, synths, and guitar are treated spatially by Russell; Scott-Heron's lead vocal roars from the center. “The Crutch” is a burning atmospheric poem about a junkie’s life. Scott-Heron doesn’t distance himself from his subject; it isn’t mere observation, but an empathic elegy, and Russell’s suffocatingly close production brings it home. Forty years after his debut, I’m New Here contains the artful immediacy that distinguishes Scott-Heron’s best art. The modern production adds immeasurably to that quality, underscores his continued relevance in reflecting the times, and opens his work to a new generation of listeners while giving older ones a righteous jolt. [XL is also offering a limited editon of 300 copies with seven bonus tracks. These include unreleased material from the album's sessions, as well as new versions of "Winter In America" and "Home Is Where The Hatred Is."]

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