Review Summary: "I'm New Here" isn't a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an excellent artistic revival all the same.
I'm always a little weary of comeback albums. Even if the music is good--great even--it's usually packaged with so much hype, gimmickry and bullshit that they completely overshadow the final product. For that reason alone I was hesitant to pick up I'm New Here
, the first album in fifteen years from singer/poet Gil Scott-Heron. It's received several glowing reviews since its release last February, but it seemed like a lot of people were praising it because they were supposed
to, rather than the music actually being any good. Revered musical pioneer hooks up with a cutting edge label (XL Recordings--head honcho Richard Russell also produces the album), works contemporary influences into his sound (gothic electronica ala Burial and Massive Attack) and composes a set of weathered songs about aging, death and despair. Who the fuck is going to pan that"
Plus, if you examine the album structurally, it really shouldn't work. Containing four "proper" songs (three of them covers), six poems and five anecdotal interludes, I'm New Here
is constructed like a bad posthumous compilation. Yet after listening to it several times, I've realized that this album really is as good as people have been making it out to be. Make no mistake, it's a fucking mess, but somehow, that actually works to the album's advantage. I'm New Here
plays out like a rough self-portrait--the only thing I can really compare it to is Tom Waits's "Bastards" disc from the Orphans
set. It isn't a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an excellent artistic revival all the same.
I guess if you've crossed the threshold of middle-age, and have spent the last several years of your life drugged up or incarcerated, you do a lot of thinking about death. It's a popular theme on this album, as is the strain of a haggard life. Robert Johnson's “Me & The Devil” was tortured enough to begin with, but Scott-Heron's exhausted croak and Russell's skeletal production make it into a full-blown funeral procession. Similarly, Brook Benton/Bobby Bland's “I'll Take Care of You” transmutes into a desperate romantic plea, with Scott-Heron growling out the lyrics over icy pianos and a faint string section. The spoken-word tracks “Running” and “Your Soul & Mine” both talk about the impermanence of everything, and how everything you run away from catches up with you eventually, again, feeding into the theme of death. Most of this album is somewhere between Massive Attack and Coil, and even the hand claps on “New York Is Killing Me” have been processed and fed through a machine. Needless to say, this isn't exactly easy listening.
Still, I'm New Here
isn't all about doom and despair. The album is bookended by the two-part quasi-poem “Coming from a Broken Home,” which has Scott-Heron giving thanks to his grandmother for all the years she took care of him (over the string section from Kanye West's “Flashing Lights”), and the folkish title track features the refrain “No matter how far on you've gone / you can always turn around.”
And even if they seem inconsequential, the interludes provide some of the most revealing and even humorous moments of the album. On “Being Blessed,” he says with a self-depreciating laugh:
“If you gotta pay for things that you've done wrong...I've got a big bill coming at the end of the day.”
For better or worse, I'm New Here
is about how Gil Scott-Heron has gotten to the point in his life he's at right now, without resorting to cloying self-pity or blubbering apologies. Here's hoping that he keeps up this momentum his next go around.