Review Summary: But I'm the closest thing I have to a voice of reasonI did not become someone different
That I did not want to be
But I’m new here
Will you show me around"
And so begins Gil Scott-Heron’s second take on his austere and slightly cracked world view, his severe and solemn social commentary still as biting and coarse as it was on last year’s I’m New Here
. And speaking of his almost reluctant return after a staggering 16 year absence, let’s briefly touch on the origins of this remix album before we dissect the companion piece proper. I’m New Here
has been described as the culmination of a long and hard road to recovery, a final triumphant return that should be viewed as a retribution piece of sorts. But Gil’s never been one to mince words, or to be precise, been apologetic about his somewhat reclusive nature. He’s not one to shy away from the undeniable facts and the simple truth. As blunt as can possibly be , Gil is all too ready to share the stories that have seen him kept out of studios and unable to give voice to his crooked views. The reason for a 16 year gap: addiction. The man has a taste for narcotics, and as a result he’s spent the better part of two decades in and out of jail for various drug related offenses. This is interesting for an artist renowned as one of the great street poets of our time, to compile his boardwalk corner gospels from the bed of a jail cell, his view of the world framed on all sides and grotesquely disturbed by bars. Which all seems a bit melodramatic, but it’s shaped Heron into the now slightly grizzled and equally bent artist who walks the streets today, notepad and pencil in hand, just observing and reporting.
And this isolation has of course skewed Gil’s perception of the world, yet seemingly for the better. It’s made him a little more honest, a little more black and white. You can just compare the album covers to understand that; gone were the bright and colorful “sounds from Motown” artworks from yesteryear, an old man sucking on a cigarette, dependant on an addiction, left in its place. No gloss or shine to hide the visage of a weary and tired man. And it wasn’t so much that he felt “new”, but more out of place, out of touch. He came back into a world with an idea of how to understand it, but that knowledge seemed to elude him when walking down roads so vastly different from his memories, the changing of the times ultimately leaving him lost, a tourist in his own town. I’m New Here
, despite the emboldening title, failed because Herron ultimately seemed to be still clinging to the days of old, a relic lost in the hustle and bustle. Which is what makes We’re New Here
so interesting and vibrant in comparison. The dichotomous nature in the pairing of old meets new works in the favor of this compilation, with Gil’s rasp-like reminiscences laid bare over Smith’s lo-fi re-wiring playing out in stark contrast to Herron’s solo attempt. Here he embraces his almost alienated impulses and digitizes himself into the world of dubstep and electronic architecture, leaving any semblance of his former self to rot at the wayside. Here, instead of lamenting, he embraces the unknown.
Remix albums are generally always a hit and miss affair, most times hastily assembled in an attempt to cash in on notable successes, to squeeze out a few extra dollars before the well runs completely dry. While by no means an original concept, having the remix duties solely handled by one artist allows for a lot more fluency to come through in the sound. To the point where you almost forget that you are listening to a “re-working” or a compilation of sorts, We’re New Here
almost manages to pass itself off as an entirely new album in its own right. Sonically masterminded entirely by Smith is the obvious reason why there are so many loose connections embedded in the album, despite the fact that he works with no clear identity. Now that club music has become a little more accepting of such left field additions like dubstep and more glitch hop based fare, Smith has latched onto their exploding popularity with a thief-like fervency. He dresses his urban beats in various guises and forms, providing a snapshot of more abstract dance music in the process. He almost revels in the fact that he’s been able to shed his Xx roots, his subtle additions to the group dropped in favor for a much more bass driven and intensive sound. But he wisely makes sure to not lose Herron in the pandemonium, he continues I’m New Here
’s approach of keeping Gil squarely in the forefront by crafting the chaos around him. He forms his music like a skeletal frame and lets Herron fill in the blanks and give color to the dull spectrum.
Gil Scott-Herron almost sounds at peace wrapped up in the gritty backstrokes of Smith’s ever changing landscape, constantly shifting and adapting to the copy and paste nature of Jamie’s obvious influences. There emerges no discernible identity to Smith’s electronic tendencies as a result of this heart-on-a-sleeve appreciation though, each cut slowly working through various easily identifiable motifs and popular satisfactions. The pilfering is methodical though, and bolstered by Jamie’s obvious talents around the production board. And despite the hodge-podge of loose ideas there’s a very solid foundation that locks the whole album down and keeps any one track from slipping out into the unknown. Everything is all neatly tied in place despite the overwhelming diversity. Take ‘NY Is Killing Me’, perhaps the signature track from this companion piece. Its gritty and tough dubstep sermon recalls the movement’s first tentative steps, seemingly lifting the beat from Benga circa 2002 and roughing it up a little, injecting the blueprint with a little dark swagger and rust tinged melancholy. And then compare that with the more tripped out ‘The Crutch’, a track that wouldn’t seem out of place on Teebs’ recent effort with its luscious crests and drugged out vibes. Or look at the final stages of ‘Home’ where Smith tries to drown Herron in a sea of skitterish percussion and glitchy loops that bring to mind James Blake’s early triumphs. He even taps into the thuggish nature of Lil Silva’s Night Slugs output on 'Running', its lazy beat heavy in pummel and destruction before Jamie attempts to swallow it whole in a sea of 8-bit extremities. He returns to that signature Brainfeeder sound on ‘My Cloud’, that constant rise and fall coming off like Mono/Poly in the grips of full immersion. He constructs the track around this swelling beat that constantly threatens to overflow but somehow always manages to (briefly) subside, like sound caught in a vacuum.
It’s funny to hear Gil sound so at ease over such a restless backdrop, the usual urban paranoia still creeping through but now somewhat held in check by Herron’s rambling. For a man who has seemingly become so distant though it makes sense that he’d choose to immerse himself in such a hypnotic and foreign affair as this. Fans of I’m New Here
might find themselves a little hard pressed here, as Jamie has turned this from a mere remix project into something inextricably more personal and haunting. We’re New Here
is surprisingly triumphant for a number of reasons, chief of them being the decision to move away from a simple rehash into something incredibly new and equally refreshing and vital. And with Herron dropping the “here to atone” presence felt on I’m New Here
his words only add to the dark undercurrents of Jamie’s score. What We’re New Here
shows is two outsiders looking in, and writing the soundtrack to their observations.