The first thing to say about Gil Scott-Heron’s latest record is that it is an astonishing piece of work; which is gratifying for those of us who think of him as one of black music’s great radical innovators. It could have been different. It’s his first record since he came out of jail (having fallen, he once said, into the same trap he had spent decades warning the black community about), and he could have easily just done a retread of some well-worn themes.
Instead, it has the air of a man who is intent on reaffirming his place in the history of black music, from the sample of Kanye West in the first and last tracks, or the channelling of Robert Johnson on Me and the Devil, or even the cover of a Brook Benton song. And his own musical and personal history, too: On Coming From A Broken Home confronts, over and over, easy categorisation of the black experience (“as every ‘ologist would certainly note, I had no strong male figure, right”) while also tipping a nod to his own ’80s song, Grandma’s Hands.
Even at 60, his voice is still deep and rich, the timing and phrasing pitch perfect, and the sentiment as tough and clear-eyed as any of his records from the Nixon and Reagan eras. The rapidfire wordplay around the notion of “running”, for example, on Running, is both witty and dark. Credit to his British producer Richard Russell, who also wrote the music for several songs. (It’s released on Russell’s XL label). Between them, they have created a sound which makes “I’m New Here” quite a lot more than the sum of its parts.
Indeed , it’s almost a rebuke to the ‘burn this’ culture of spotting the couple of best tracks. The sleeve notes exhort the buyer that “Buying a CD is an investment. To get the maximum you must LISTEN TO IT FOR THE FIRST TIME UNDER OPTIMUM CONDITIONS … LISTEN all the way through.”
“I’m New Here” repays that temporal investment over and over. Like he’s never been away.
Thanks to David Gunn for the tip about Kanye West.