Gil Scott-Heron flips back shadows on the brilliant I'm New Here
I'm New Here then embarks on a starkly orchestrated narrative, largely the vision of Richard Russell, label head and main producer of XL Recordings, the home of Tom Yorke and Vampire Weekend. (Russell signed Scott-Heron four years ago, while he was still in Rikers.) Scott-Heron's guttural blues pulls tremendous vigor from Russell's bleak electronic beats and sparse folk arrangements. The shuffling rhythm and ghostly atmospherics of "Your Soul and Mine" recall the dreary wastelands and enchanted junkyards depicted by dub-step progenitor Burial. In "Running" and "The Crutch," off-kilter industrial pounding weaves foreboding spirits into Scott-Heron's words, which circle the question of absolute loneliness and salvation like a feverish pack of vultures. "Because I always feel like running," Scott-Heron intones, "Not away, because there is no such place/ Because if there was, I would have found it by now." He takes the outsider's perspective on the isolating effect of pain in "The Crutch": "From dawn to dawn his body houses hurt/ And none of us can truly aid his search." The handclap driven gospel blues of "New York is Killing Me" sees Scott-Heron longing for his Jackson home over the alienating grind of city living; "Eight million people, and I didn't have a single friend," he levels.
On the three cover version here, Scott-Heron reimagines 20th century songs that play on the possibility that renewal might emerge from the final throes of desperation. He flips Robert Johnson's shadowy dance with evil in the lead single "Me and the Devil" over a ravaging beat that intensifies the weight of solitude. The song transitions abruptly into the guitar strummed title track "I'm New Here," wherein Scott-Heron invigorates alt-rocker Smog's original lyrics with a contradictory pairing of confidence and stripped-down anxiety. "I did not become someone different/ That I did not want to be," he proclaims, but then admits, as if pushing himself forward in a repeating line, "No matter how far wrong you've gone/ You can always — turn around."
It's easy to hear I'm New Here as autobiographical, but I can't help but wonder how to piece together an accurate view of the man behind the music, beneath the icon. Sincere-sounding emotions — suffering, and hope for some sort of earthly redemption — emerge. But they come from an artist and occasional satirist who reminded us to always question the media spectacle, the beguiling and toxic messages foisted on us, the business of buying, selling, and experiencing art.
In a recent interview on BBC Radio 4, host Mark Coles attempted to address the subject of Scott-Heron's personal trials. Scott-Heron interrupted, "Very few things have been autobiographical that have been included in my work ... If you do a good job on a song and convince people of it, they'll attach it to your biography as though it's actually something that's part of your life instead of a good acting job."
Is Scott-Heron trying to protect himself once again from the public's judgment? It's a strategy that I'm New Here captures well. The lifelong fabulist can make the unhinged pathos underlying a cover song his own. He can conjure up moments of raw expression; he can recite reflective poems from distant nights. But Scott-Heron's storytelling talent itself is what sinks into your gut. It's the self-renewing life of the words and sounds that linger in your flesh. "And so we've made a lot of characters come to life for people," he said, "because they needed them to come to life." *
March 16, 17
8pm, 10pm, $26
Yoshi's San Francisco
1330 Fillmore, SF