Friday, February 05, 2010

Bruised but Unbeaten

Gil Scott Heron - I'm New Here (XL Recordings)

This intriguing comeback from Gil Scott Heron is actually an incredibly difficult album to review. Scott Heron has arguably never made a bad record – even his last release, 1994’s ‘Spirits’, had its moments. Whilst ‘I’m New Here’ belatedly continues the quality streak, it stands alone in Scott Heron’s catalogue in terms of its sound and instrumentation. Yet it’s faintly ludicrous to applaud it for ‘incorporating hip-hop’ when, along with the Last Poets, Scott Heron is one of the founding fathers of rap. XL boss Richard Russell’s production therefore represents a sensitive and logical modernisation, rather than a forced or unnecessary one.

The sonic environment Russell has crafted for Scott Heron may not actually be all that radical. His claustrophobic, sinister but minimalist combination of strings and beats could easily have come from a Massive Attack album. He at least seems to be a good deal more creative with such backing tracks than Massive Attack themselves are these days. His accompaniments take Scott Heron away from his natural comfort zone without making him sound distant or uncomfortable. There’s no Fender Rhodes piano or live percussion and no attempt to smooth over the rough, nervy reality of Scott Heron’s words. The jazz lineage (the world of ‘lady Day and John Coltrane’) may have been sacrificed – but the results are suitably dank and fearsome.

What is most interesting about this record though is Scott Heron’s voice, which now sounds deeper and more resonant, but somehow simultaneously more weathered and dry. He now sounds like a man who has been through a tough prison sentence and various drug rehabilitation programmes. In this sense, the musical backings work remarkably well, given that they are atmospheric but unobtrusive – allowing that peculiar but powerful voice space to communicate.

This set supremely reaffirms Scott Heron’s talents as a performance poet. It is full of interludes and brief skits which complement the flow of the overall album rather than interrupt it. It is bookended by two parts of an autobiographical tale entitled ‘On Coming From A Broken Home’ in which Scott Heron’s elaborate language is as rich and evocative as the sound of his voice. Even more intense is the stark, pounding ‘Running’, which seems confessional in light of Scott Heron’s recent life experience.

The album is rather dominated by the choice of covers, which leads to obvious comparisons with Rick Rubin’s rehabilitation of Johnny Cash’s career. Yet, to hear Johnny Cash singing with acoustic instrumentation was not surprising. To hear Scott Heron doing it on the surprisingly effective version of Smog’s ‘I’m New Here’ is rather radical and unexpected. The song’s combination of irony and honesty is the perfect vehicle for Scott Heron’s resurrection, with its brilliant chat up lines (‘I met a woman in a bar and told her I was hard to get to know, but damn near impossible to forget’) and self-reflection (‘I had an ego the size of Texas. I forget –does that mean big or small?’).

Perhaps less unexpected are versions of Robert Johnson’s ‘Me and The Devil’, relocated from the Mississippi Delta to a paranoid urban environment, and an ostensibly soft take on Bobby Bland’s ‘I’ll Take Care Of You’. Here, Scott Heron’s harsh voice suggests not compassion or commitment – but rather defiance and conviction.

The only original ‘song’ here – ‘New York Is Killing Me’ – is excellent, and suggests that there may be much more to come from this resurrected artist. Set to a handclap backing reminiscent of the Dixie Cups’ ‘Iko Iko’, the accompanying vocal is anything but lightweight, actually weighed down by its burdensome natural gravitas.

I’ve long had reservations with the image of Scott Heron as a prophet of equality and human rights, given his early song ‘The Subject Was Faggots’, a rather unpleasant piece of observational writing. Perhaps now that he has singlehandedly failed to take his own advice (having fallen victim to the very drink and drugs he warned so gravely about) we can now see him in a different, more nuanced light. On ‘I’m New Here’ he seems defiant, but also wiser and slightly vulnerable too. This is an unexpected, powerful return to the real world.

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