Watching The Who perform at the Super Bowl was a difficult experience. It wasn’t the lights, embarrassingly tight shirts or overall lack of energy. There was something slightly more troubling. Throughout the show, the audience was faced with unanswerable questions: How do classic artists maintain their integrity into old age? How can they release music that is more than just competent but relevant or even exciting? How do you stay cool forever?
Gil Scott Heron
I’m New Here
Gil Scott Heron is an iconic poet, author and musician whose spoken-word pieces “The Bottle” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” led to public and critical acclaim throughout the ’70s and early ’80s. His speak-sing and proto-rap vocal styles were influential in hip hop’s genesis, and he became an icon of the black militant movement. Some call him the black Bob Dylan. For roughly the past 20 years, Heron battled drugs, alcohol and jail time, all the while sporadically recording and performing. Now, in his first proper LP since 1994’s Spirits, Heron is paired with producer and owner of XL Records, Richard Russell, for I’m New Here.
As a title, it makes a lot of sense — Here is composed of elements both new and old. Under Russell’s production, Heron, whose rich baritone has been weathered to a slurring rasp, is placed atop sparse industrial backing tracks. Where Heron’s vibrant voice would have traded space with warm handclaps and natural instrumentation on his classic records, Here surrounds him with muted, robotic percussion, whirring keyboards and a rare backing choir that sound like the Sweet Inspirations locked in a basement. The album begins with “On Coming From A Broken Home,” a poetic reflection on maternal figures both aged and nostalgic, set to the orchestrated intro loop of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”. On Here, new and old sit side-by-side.
I’m New Here is slight, by intention and accident. Essentially, there are four actual “songs” (three of which are covers), six recitations and a few interludes in all, running under a half hour. The “songs” are the most impressive moments on the album, though they largely feel half baked. The first single, “Me and the Devil,” is a chugging, keyboard-based re-imagining of blues legend Robert Johnson’s classic. But beyond its sleek and purposefully spare clank, the song goes nowhere. A faithful and appropriate rendition of the album’s title track, a Smog original, sounds eerily close to lead singer Bill Callahan’s vocal stylings, simply arranged with a warm acoustic guitar and Heron’s voice. The grooving, unsettling thump of “New York is Killing Me” is the album’s highest achievement, marrying Russell’s intentionally sparse production with a gradual atonal 12-bar blues stomp and Heron’s growling. Aside from these cuts, Heron’s poems are presented with subtle and evocative instrumentals that ebb and disappear beneath his words.
The lyrics are where I’m New Here presents Heron’s most significant shift. Whereas the Heron of 1974 penned robust social commentaries, I’m New Here feels like a reserved confessional. Unfinished letters to an ex, dead-drunk musings and long-gone family members cement the focus of Here; this is the introspective Heron. And while this personal focus is a great concept, the 30-minute sketch of an album does little to grant it staying power.
I’m New Here is worth a cursory listen, and that’s its problem. The material, while interesting and singular, never manages to achieve the heights of Heron’s previous work. To a degree, the intent to underwhelm is intentional on Russell and Heron’s part. The songs aren’t fully colored in on purpose. This is what Heron has “become”: fractured, incomplete, messy. But that doesn’t prevent you from wanting more. Classic ’70s albums like There’s a Riot Goin’ On and On the Beach made the most of the mid-tempo, going everywhere and nowhere in the context of slight songs. This is a feeling that Here teeters and retreats from.
And while Heron has no chance in hell at a halftime performance at the Super Bowl, he has produced a compelling product late in his game. Cool? Yeah. Fulfilling? Not yet.