Gil Scott-Heron - I'm New Here
Socio-political funk pioneer, revered poet, arguably one of the godfathers of the hip-hop scene, Gil Scott-Heron has suffered at the hands of addiction and imprisonment over the past two decades, but this collaboration with XL Records head honcho Richard Russell achieves the admirable feat of updating his sound for the modern era without compromising his artistic integrity. It's a comeback of refreshing intelligence and very broad appeal.
Russell’s sparse mixture of electronics and string arrangements recall Clint Mansell’s soundtrack work, the static-laden atmospherics of Burial, the industrial thump of Nine Inch Nails and the skunk-riddled paranoia of Tricky without ever overshadowing Gil's voice. Its timbre has changed – still a rich and commanding baritone, it is ragged and cracked around the edges, lived in, a fact that the singer uses to devastating effect on his cover of Robert Johnston’s Me And The Devil.
Classic blues and the politicised funk of GSH’s contemporary Curtis Mayfield are the touchstones both lyrically and vocally: his voice full of anger, resignation, sorrow and savage joy. There are flashes of Burroughs-like darkness, the wry humour of post-addiction Richard Pryor. Elsewhere, the flowing poetics that made the man a legend are still very much in evidence – the title track (a curious Smog cover) has the feel of early Dylan, while the aforementioned take on Me And the Devil recalls the doom-laden synths of Leonard Cohen’s classic album I’m Your Man.
Clever, searingly confessional, effortlessly modern but also managing to echo with nearly every single iteration of roots music from dub to techno to hip-hop, this all-too-brief album is of the type that will reveal richer depths and meanings with each listen. Understated, wrought with genuine feeling and emotion, and put together with a respectful and intelligent amount of thought and planning, I'm New Here is hard to fault, and an early contender for album of the year. [Bram Gieben]