On the back of the booklet in Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here CD is a message. The message reads as follows:
“There is a proper procedure for taking advantage of any investment. Music, for example. Buying a CD is an investment. To get the maximum, you must listen to it for the first time under optimum conditions. Not in your car or on a portable player through a headset. Take it home. Get rid of all distractions (even her or him). Turn off your cell phone. Turn off everything that rings or beeps or rattles or whistles. Make yourself comfortable. Play your CD. Listen all the way through. Think about what you got. Think about who would appreciate this investment. Decide if there is someone to share this with. Turn it on again. Enjoy yourself”.
So, that’s what I’ve done. I decided within the first couple of listens that there were people I wanted to share this listening experience with (both by telling them about it directly and by writing a review of it). However, as with any music I find myself emotionally affected by, I found myself not quite knowing what to say about I’m New Here, especially since it doesn’t fit into the standard popular music framework. What I can say is that it’s one of the most honest, personal albums I’ve listened to in quite some time, and it makes me want to explore more music from this artist — more than the handful of songs on a best-of compilation that I’m already familiar with.
A little background info, first: Gil Scott-Heron is one of those artists who has never been a big record-seller, but his influence on music far outweighs sales figures. The singer/spoken-word artist’s jazz & funk-inflected, politically charged music provided a rallying point for Black folks in the Seventies and was a direct influence on the hip-hop generation: it’s hard to imagine there being a Public Enemy or a Common or even a Kanye West without Gil Scott-Heron.
Gil’s work became less frequent in the Eighties and Nineties, as he unfortunately fell victim to some of the same issues he preached against in his earlier music. His last album release was in 1994, and he’s spent spots of the 16 years since addicted to drugs and in prison. I’m New Here doesn’t shy away from the events of the past two decades, and it can be argued that Gil’s experiences give this album an additional emotional resonance.
The structure of I’m New Here is a little different…15 tracks altogether, totaling a scant 28-minute running time. Six interludes, an intro and an outro means that there are actually only seven full-length songs here. With most artists, that would feel like a gyp. Not so here. I’m New Here flows and holds together; it has a sense of structure and a purpose not found in most music these days.
Gil alternates between singing and speaking on the album’s full-length tracks. The songs on I’m New Here sound like one-take recordings, and as someone whose musical tastes tend to run towards pretty mainstream music, it’s pretty cool to hear music that isn’t spit-shined. Much like later or recent recordings from Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, I’m New Here is the work of a man who has lived, and his voice reflects that life experience, whether on the beautiful piano ballad “I’ll Take Care of You,” the simple, acoustic guitar-led title track, or a version of Robert Johnson’s “Me & the Devil” which is positively haunting. Actually, “haunting” might be the best word to describe this entire album.
While the sung tracks seem to express Gil’s life in a more oblique way, the spoken word tracks and interludes are far more direct. Both the intro and outro of the album are called “On Coming from a Broken Home,” and they discuss Scott-Heron’s life being raised by women, giving special thanks to his mother and grandmother. Both songs use an orchestral sample from Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” as a musical bed — a move that could be seen as Scott-Heron’s nod to an art form that he helped create, a thank-you to West for both sampling and mentioning him on his Late Registration album, or an expression of sympathy to West, who lost his own mother not too long ago (sidebar: how cool would it be if West actually produced Gil Scott-Heron’s NEXT album).
A recurring topic on this album is death. Scott-Heron is 60, and I would imagine that at that age you start looking in the rear-view mirror a bit more. While many things he says are startling in their directness, the “Being Blessed” interlude was the one that resonated most deeply. “If you’ve got to pay for things you’ve done wrong, then I’ve got a big bill coming at the end of the day.” He says this with a chuckle — an acknowledgment that he’s done some wrong in his life, but with no bitterness at all. Sometimes, it’s not what you say, but how it’s said that makes the most impact — in this case, it’s both.
I could talk forever about how good this album is, but nothing I say is going to substitute for your own listening experience. I will say that I generally go into listening to albums that I “should” like (and I’m New Here falls into that category) with a little skepticism and definitely had to give a few repeat listens to make sure I loved this album as much as I did because it was really good, as opposed to loving it just because it fit into what’s supposed to be my musical wheelhouse. Music listening doesn’t always have to be an active process, but Gil-Scott Heron’s I’m New Here would demand your investment even if not for the artist’s personal plea in the CD booklet. It’s certainly the most moving piece of music I’ve heard in quite some time.
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