"I'm New Here." Gil Scott-Heron.
Throughout the '70s and into the early '80s, jazz/soul poet Gil Scott-Heron gave voice to the struggles of black America during the fallout of the civil-rights era.
Scott-Heron is widely credited with influencing the hip-hop movement; when he declared that "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" on the title track of his landmark 1974 album, it reverberated in the works of everyone from Grandmaster Flash to Kanye West. The bulk of the last two decades saw Scott-Heron face a series of personal setbacks, falling victim to a life of hard drugs and eventually hard time. It left little time to focus with any clarity on his poetry and music.
Touted as Scott-Heron's big comeback, "I'm New Here" features a slew of contemporary artists lending a hand to the production, updating his sound with brooding synths and samples. The album opens not with a fiery call to arms, but with an earnest and reflective spoken-word piece on the artist's early upbringing in the South under the guidance of a beloved grandmother. It's an emotionally naked moment, disarming in its openness and void of the political rhetoric marking his signature works.
Slipping from that to a feverish and throbbing cover of bluesman Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil," Scott-Heron's once-nimble vocals have been weathered to a coarse baritone, bearing the imprint of time and bad choices. It's a technique that can't be faked; what the man is communicating is pain and the scars that it leaves, and when his damaged voice is put to good use, it can send chills up your spine.
The problem with "I'm New Here," is that for every moment that works, it's countered with something that doesn't fit Scott-Heron's aesthetic. A Bill Callahan cover serves as the title track, also serving as one of the album's biggest misfires. Callahan's wry deadpan lyrics turn awkward and ineffective under Scott-Heron's slurred garble. Scott-Heron fares better with the more traditional jazz standard "I'll Take Care Of You" and on the rough-hewn gospel blues of "New York Is Killing Me."
The LP version of the record comes with a digital download full of bonus tracks of varying degrees of quality, but Scott-Heron shines brightest on the spoken-word pieces. Even when these tracks stumble into meandering cliche, Scott-Heron's gritty voice transcends and illuminates. Word has it that he still struggles with the demons that threaten to do him in, but "I'm New Here" is a spotty reminder of the man's considerable talent, and one that hopefully points to more consistent works in his future.