Out on an ill-advised shopping trip to Georgetown one sweltering August afternoon some years ago, the two of us rounded the corner from Pennsylvania Ave. to M Street. In our path a junkie lay shirtless and spread-eagle, a pitted dark briquette smoldering on the new brick sidewalk. A factoid bubbles up as the sweat beads down: “Gil Scott-Heron’s playing at Blues Alley this week” just a few wavy-lined blocks away. The junkie jerks to life as if a spring popped in his abdomen, “Gil Scott? Tell that mutha***** he owe me twenny bucks!!” He collapses back to an inanimate state as we side-step him, questioning our mission as the heat becomes unbearable
Gil Scott-Heron has the dubious distinction of being both the hyper-intelligent, wildly talented revolutionary cat we dream of being and a recovering addict just out the pokey. Hard living in the public eye has transformed Mr. Scott-Heron into the Billie Holiday of brothers who wore black berets (or feel they would’ve worn a black beret had they been born a bit sooner). It is with no small sense of satisfaction, then, that we receive I’m New Here, a latter-day album very much in line with Johnny Cash’s Rick Rubin recordings (previously unreleased material from those sessions is out now due to popular demand).
The new release is the product of a concerted effort by producer Richard Russell to collaborate, despite the elder statesman’s legal troubles. Russell wraps Scott-Heron’s rasp in a dark, glitchy cloak of electronica, a surprisingly effective backdrop. Gone are Brian Jackson’s warm instrumentals and Gil Scott’s white hot lasers of indignation aimed at the establishment. What rises here is the specter of a man who’s mostly gristle, wizened but more outwardly vulnerable than he’s been seen before.
Highlights include the organic title track, the spooky DIY video for “Me and the Devil,” and the handclapped blues of “New York Is Killing Me.” The album is weighed down, though, by seven interludes and a limited amount of bona fide singing. Also missing, but forgivable given the circumstances, is a much-needed political song for a fractured citizenry. I’m New Here remains, nonetheless, a surprising spring of life from a deep, dark well.