Friday, 5 February 2010

Gil Scott-Heron: I'm New Here (XL Recordings, 2010)

Let’s not talk about the release of this new album as an ‘event’, if we can help it. Yes, Gil Scott-Heron, ‘godfather of rap’, a hugely important voice in bringing socially-conscious messages to both black and white youth, has not recorded an album since 1994’s ‘Spirits’. Yes, he has been in and out of prison, has had plans for recordings and for books planned and then postponed, has made intermittent public appearances but been generally been shrouded in rumours of ill-health and personal breakdown. Yes, all this has happened – and the record’s title suggests a very specific engagement with the notion that Heron is a quote-unquote major artist who must add to his legacy, must teach us all once again, must justify his absence with another classic. Might it suggest that Heron is a new man, reborn, coming out of hard times with his head held high once more? And would that mean a return to the Heron of the old days, or would it mean a re-invented, re-invigorated artist, starting over just as strong but in a different place?

These are all questions that Heron does not need to answer: he has done enough, whatever the critics may say about missed opportunities, not to have to make another statement if he does not wish to; his position is assured. But, as listeners, as critics, we cannot help but make them – we cannot pretend to listen in a vacuum. And so the comparisons begin almost as soon as we press play.

First off, after we get past the spoken-word of the opening track, we’ll notice that Heron sounds less comfortable singing now (perhaps explaining the choice of Smog’s neo-folk acoustic number ‘I’m New Here’ to cover; in the original, Bill Callahan’s sung voice was always on the brink of shading over into laconic, spoken reflection, and here, Heron speaks most of the words, singing only the short, recurring chorus). His voice is now partially possessed of the ‘lived-in’ croak that characterises latter-day Dylan and Tom Waits. Though that has always been part of Waits' cigarettes-and-alcohol mystique, and seems to have become an accentuation of Dylan’s famously less than smooth vocal stylings (albeit one so extreme that its burden must be borne by his status as a ‘living legend’ fondly canonised by both a generation of fading hippies and Professor Christopher Ricks), in Heron’s case, as his voice was quite mellifluous before, this may have necessitated a stylistic change, as it can’t quite carry the righteous soul style. (It will be interesting to hear what material Heron tackles in his upcoming live shows – one would have thought that a record like this wouldn’t really be feasible as a stage show, and a return to the jazz/soul instrumental styling would seem likely.)

But, given all this, one must remember that spoken word is how Heron started off in the first place – his debut record announced him as ‘A New Black Poet’, and it is as poet as much as singer that he appears here. Despite the apparently low-key title of that record (‘Small-Talk at 125th and Lenox’), the wide-ranging subject matter and the urgent desire to speak political realities meant that he was soon aligned with the poet-teachers of the 1970s African-American urban experience: June Jordan, Jayne Cortez, Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka, Father Amde Hamilton, Otis O’Solomon, Richard Dedeaux, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Abiodun Oyewole, Umar Bin Hassan. Of course, such a reduction – to a list of names – would mitigate the approach that all these artists shared, one that was about ‘the revolution of everyday life’, rather than about soapbox sermonising or political platitudinising divorced from the thoughts and feelings, the insults and injuries, the imposed or unwitting failures, and, yes too, the joys that occupied every minute of every day for vast numbers of ordinary people. Thus, while all the reviews will focus on the fact that ‘I’m New Here’ is a ‘personal’ record, a chastened Heron’s reaction to years of silence through addiction and imprisonment, it’s worth noting that the material which made his name was precisely defined by its absence of sloganeering (this is the narrative of ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ – moving revolution, as a movement, away from the simplicity of oft-repeated clichés, catchphrases, and images), and by its focus on the inseparability of the personal and the political (think of the way the narrative of black poverty and institutional callousness in ‘Pieces of a Man’ is filtered through a sentiment of personal and private grief). Nonetheless, while Heron, particularly as time went on, did take on the position of spokesman (shouting out against the Reagan era, then advising the hip-hop artists who followed in his wake to take more account of their social responsibility, as potential teachers of, and voices for their generation), his absence from the scene perhaps mitigates against his effectiveness as the wise elder – having passed on the mantle, he can self-reflect, in a manner of course still tied to the forces that shaped him, but with the specifics of political concern not voiced explicitly.

Instead, what seems a more imaginatively exaggerated world emerges. This may result as much as anything from the ominous sound of the music: its samples and murmurs, its hisses and whirrs are a world away from the soul-drenched piano chords and jazz bass of the more familiar work, though the references to Charon and to Satan, and the flickering, high speed urban ghosts of the video to ‘Me and the Devil’ certainly have their say in the matter too. Given further reflection, however, one realises that the words frequently turn on themes familiar enough to count as archetypal. The personal demons of alcohol-fuelled sleeplessness and the drudge of routine (‘Where Did the Night Go’) form a quieter, more intimate variation on ‘The Bottle’, while, elsewhere, it is the classic themes of the blues that are returned to: the old theme of urban decay as contrasted against the simplicity of a poor, but perhaps more ‘honest’, rural past (‘New York is Killing Me’), the attractive yet unsettling force of the supernatural (‘Me and the Devil’) – where the supernatural becomes a potent force, not so much structured into simple moral schemes but as figured as part of the complexity of human behaviour, and – crucially – part of the complexity of the traditions formed over centuries by African-Americans reacting to their transplantation and subsequent isolation in ‘the land of the free’.

Transformation is a major part of this experience – the practice of ‘signifying’ – jazz’s transformation of white instruments through black music – Sun Ra’s transformation of a multitude of subjects, from spirituals to space travel – Ray Charles’ transformation of gospel styles from the sacred to the profane – Heron’s non-televised transformation of the slogans of consumer culture into their negation. And ‘I’m New Here’, too, is about transformation – two of the stand-out tracks are covers, back to the roots with Robert Johnson’s ‘Me and the Devil’, and, more surprisingly, turning to acoustic guitar and the (musically) lilting, (lyrically) self-interrogating ‘I’m New Here’ by Bill Calahan (a.k.a. Smog). Connecting the subdued, whimsical delicacy of white folk-tradition in the latter, with the blues’ more extrovert, dramatically strident position doesn’t so much seal their differences as emphasise the common thread of vulnerability and personal honesty underlining both – as well as the fact that such apparent straightforwardness is always an assuming of a role, a self-dramatisation that stands, often ambiguously, for a truth, rather than presenting that truth direct in itself. This is a balance between frailty and strutting confidence that the record treats as central. It doesn’t shy away from the increased weakness of Heron’s voice; rather, the production takes account of it, even foregrounds it – rather than compensating with a thicker background texture, it keeps things sparse and stripped-down, to emphasize rather than to hide.

This turns out to mean that we have here a striking generic difference to previous Scott-Heron albums. The aforementioned production is decidedly lo-fi (with tape hiss and sparing use of murky samples), and its sparse, semi-industrial sound owes much to the spaciousness, to the minimal, almost empty ghost-traces of dub-step, where samples drift in and out almost un-noticed, where tracks float along on skeletal beats that pound with mechanical precision but that never feel fast or driving. There are no saxophone, flute or piano solos to add more complex improvised variations over the song’s basic structures; instead, there are the pauses between phrases, the tension hanging on each word, the wait for each weighted-syllable.

And, given that the fifteen-track record lasts for only 28-minutes (including a number of ‘interludes’ – 10-second, reverb’d snippets of Heron in conversation), each syllable is most definitely weighted. Such brevity makes it important to experience the whole thing as one, continuous, flowing entity: the recurring Kanye West sample which opens and closes the record, giving it an element of circularity; the transference of mood from tales of spirits and the threat of damnation (‘Me and the Devil’, ‘Your Soul and Mine’) to personal ruminations hung-over with depression and unease (‘Where Did the Night Go’, ‘Running’), to warmer reminiscences and reflections on a life – the way it was lived, the influences that shaped it (the short spoken-word snippets). Though the songs themselves generally have a clear and simple structure, the predominance of spoken word and the sparseness of the background mean that tracks don’t split as easily into single entities as they do on, say, ‘Pieces of a Man’. Because of this, some might slant this as a record of half-started (or half-finished) demos and sketches, spliced together and put out there before it’s reached the stage of a rounded, completed artistic statement. Indeed, the quick-fix critic in me suggested that very angle when I first heard these tracks, but, in trying to actually listen to and experience the album with an open attitude, I realised that trying to impose such a structure would not be to take this record on its own terms – which is the only way it is going to make sense. Forget pre-conditioned ideas about how an album ‘should’ be constituted – as much as you can – and, allowing that the distance of time may allow a more finely-balanced judgement once a few years have passed, I think one can say that this is a good piece of work: sincere, not bombastic, not expected; unsentimental but frank, not directed towards melody as on the classic albums but with enough melodic aftertaste to satisfy. And in that sense, assessment as to whether it is a ‘major album’ or an ‘important comeback’, and attempts to place it into a particular model of ‘late recordings by former legends’ (all the Johnny Cash comparisons we’ve been hearing), come to seem rather unnecessary, rather out of place. You can hear it for what it is, and you should.

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