I’m New Here
“On Coming from a Broken Home (Part One),” the opening track from I’m New Here, finds Gil Scott-Heron memorializing Lily Scott, the grandmother who raised him. He speaks over a loop of the intro to Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”—the part that’s all whirring space noises and laser light show fodder, before the beat drops. On Kanye’s version, it’s an acclimating lead-up before some future shit kicks in. For Gil Scott, the loop provides build after build with no release. “I was moved in with her, temporarily,” he says of his grandmother, “Just until things were patched. Until this was patched and that was patched, until I became at 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, the patch.” He clips the t’s and tch’s on his words. He emphasizes in strange places. His inflection drops downward at the end of each line. Gil Scott-Heron has always been considered a spoken-word artist, yet never has he sounded so much like he’s not conversing, but reciting. He’s clearly invested in what he says. At the same time, he’s disconnected from it. His words are vessels, ciphers, empty capsules waiting to be filled with meaning.
It makes sense. Gil Scott-Heron is sixty years old, once a grad school poet who stumbled into a music career with an iconic single (“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”), became a 200,000-seat-theater-filling political artist for most of the 70’s and 80’s, and has spent the last two decades getting whooped on by drugs, jail, and disease. In the last five years, he’s spent ten months in prison on a cocaine possession charge and discovered that he may or may not be HIV positive (according to a profile in Entertainment Weekly, he keeps taking tests that come up with conflicting results). I’m New Here viscerally documents Gil Scott turning his focus from the political to the personal—a visionary looking inward. He looks at his life; credits those, like his grandmother, who nurtured the good; and takes responsibility for the bad. “If you’ve got to pay for things that you’ve done wrong,” he says during an interlude, “I got a big bill comin’.” Then he laughs.
So, when Gil Scott-Heron sounds disconnected from his own words on I’m New Here, it may be because he’s too close to the subject matter. Thing is, the album couldn’t work any other way. Gil Scott’s reciting creates an empathetic distance between himself and himself, allowing him to look steely-eyed at his own complexity. Aesthetically, it makes I’m New Here sound otherworldly, something that’s reinforced by producer and label head Richard Russell, who provides bluesy compositions tinged with hip-hop and dubstep elements. It also gives Gil Scott the vocal flexibility to jump from brittle elegiacs to Tom Waits-style barroom songs to vaudevillian comedy (“She said I’ve got an ego on me the size of Texas,” he says, on the cover of Smog song that gives the album its title, “Well, I’m new here, and I forget: Is that big or small?”) Most of all, his voice is a vessel for the poetry—of his own words, Bill Callahan’s, or Robert Johnson’s on “Me and the Devil,”—and the poetry is powerful enough that Gil Scott doesn’t have to emote it to be emotional. When Gil Scott-Heron speaks, his personal history speaks through him.
-Marty Brown, 2010