Reconsidered: Gil Scott-Heron - I'm New Here
Posted at 12:30pm, 4/12/2011
In the 1970s Gil Scott-Heron was a controversial voice of a fragmented and restless America as a spoken word poet, author and musician. He’s been called “the godfather of rap” and “the black Bob Dylan,” but he disappeared from the music scene for about two decades serving drug-related jail time. In 2010, Scott-Heron released his first album in 16 years, I’m New Here.
Each song on I'm New Here is reflective of his life, sins (most notably his drug addiction) and pain, recognizing them as the signifiers that created the man that is Gil Scott-Heron today. However, throughout the album it is clear that they haunt him as well. The overall result is a dark, introspective record (both in subject matter and tonality) full of life wisdom Scott-Heron seemingly craves to impart on his audience.
I’m New Here catalogs the feelings of the 62-year-old Scott-Heron as a burdened and aging man. With grim tonal musical accompaniment, Scott-Heron does not often sing, but rather deeply and emphatically speaks his poetic lyrics in a true postmodern style. The music and instrumentation seems to be a backdrop to his lyrics, the main focus of his work.
If it seems that there is little to say on the accompanying music in I’m New Here, it is because there isn’t much of it to take note of. The sounds are simplistic, dark and with little instrumental variation. This weakens the album; more focus or experimentation with the accompanying music could have made his new songs astronomically effective and moving when paired with his brilliant writing. However, Scott-Heron clearly chooses his focus to be the words rather than their accompaniment, purposefully causing his audience to do the same.
The present-day artist is haunted by the inevitability of death, and in true poetic form he discusses it metaphorically. In “Your Soul and Mine,” he hauntingly describes this death as a circling vulture with his deep voice: “evil’s clarion of justice shrieks a cry of naked terror / taking babies from their mamas / leaving grief beyond compare.” In “Me and the Devil,” he claims to “walk side by side” with the evil spirit. He makes many other references to symbols of death as well, including Charon (ferryman of the rivers Styx) and Yama (the lord of death in Hinduism and the judge of the dead in Buddhism and Chinese mythology). This morose poetic imagery resonates in the musical accompaniment of almost every song.
Cyclicality of life seems to be another focal point for Scott-Heron, which he also exemplifies quite literally throughout the album by repeating certain words or phrases of importance. This is most easily heard in “Where Did the Night Go;” he catalogs the simple daily routine to a steady, metronome-like backbeat while asking “were did, where did, where did” the night go? It seems he is wondering where his life went and how he has now become a stranger to the world he once knew.
Through this catalog of time-induced insight and regret, Scott-Heron has emerged new again in the musical world he influenced so greatly, but now seems to feel lost in it. He suggests that this life’s continuing death and renewal is part of the mysterious human experience. In the title track “I’m New Here,” he imparts this wisdom to his audience, singing, “turn around, turn around, turn around/ and you may come full circle / and be new here again,” just as Scott-Heron is himself.
- Kara Henderson
I'm New Here was released on XL Recordings last Spring.