Gil Scott-Heron flips back shadows on the brilliant I'm New Here
In the 1970s and early '80s, Gil Scott-Heron sang, spoke, and wrote viscerally of social and spiritual unrest. Few artists could voice acute awareness of the struggles of their time and still touch on glimmers of redemption with such aplomb. Even at his biting bleakest, Scott-Heron always preferred the profundity of hope to cynical withdrawal.
Born in Chicago and raised in Jackson, Tenn., a teenage Scott-Heron absorbed the successes and failures of the civil rights movement in the hustle of the Bronx. In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, he moved to Manhattan, where he channeled the Harlem Renaissance and followed in the footsteps of Langston Hughes. Nearly a decade before the first hip-hop record was pressed on wax, Scott-Heron deftly rapped spoken word poetry over jazz-funk backbeats. His songs and street-talk illustrated the joys and sufferings of life — black self-determination and the plight of the inner city ("Home is Where The Hatred Is"), apartheid ("Johannesburg"), political protest ("B Movie"), the poisonous drug epidemic ("Bottle"), and an urgent call for uprising ("The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"). He cloaked poignant criticisms of the American dream with a tough wit sweetened by his rich, impassioned baritone. Today Gil Scott-Heron is the stuff of legend.
Despite the unwavering relevance of his music, Scott-Heron released his last album, Spirits (TVT), 16 years ago, his only recording since 1982. He spent much of the last decade in and out of prison and rehabilitation centers on cocaine possession and parole transgression charges. Upon release from Rikers Island in 2007, Scott-Heron started touring again with his band the Amnesia Express. Last fall, I managed to catch his inspiring live performance in San Francisco at the Regency Ballroom. Addressing rumors about his alleged drug abuses and weakened state of health, a jaunty Scott-Heron warned the audience not to trust the gossip circulating on the Internet. The plea seemed more like a strategy for protecting himself, perhaps stirred by the artist's haunting realization that he couldn't help falling victim to his own cautionary tales. Yet Scott-Heron prophesied it all 35 years prior. He told stories from life experience and out of necessity rather than through the idealistic eyes of a watchdog. "If you ever come looking for me/ You know where I'm bound to be — in a bottle," he sang. "If you see some brother looking like a goner/ It's gonna be me."
On the brilliant new I'm New Here (XL), a 60-year-old Scott-Heron eschews outright protest to turn his sights inward. The concise effort, clocking in at just under 30 minutes, visits fragments of Scott-Heron's life through an unusual, electronic-laced patchwork of introspective meditations, poetry snipped from earlier works, cover songs, and off-the-cuff interludes from recorded studio conversation. The two-part "On Coming From a Broken Home" bookends I'm New Here. The first part — a heartfelt tribute to his grandmother Lily Scott who raised him in Jackson — sets a confessional tone, one about searching for home. In the closer, a weathered and raspy-voiced Scott-Heron speaks in praise of the courageous women-folk who made him the man he is today. The introspective and momentous sound of "Broken Home" also sets up the multi-referential aesthetic of the record. Its production extends the intro loop of Kanye West's "Flashing Lights" (continuing a dialogue — West sampled Scott-Heron in "No Way Home"), which itself took inspiration from the fluttering string arrangements in Curtis Mayfield's Superfly theme, "Little Child Running Wild."
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