Among the laundry list of names shouted, spat, or hurled toward the end of LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge“, GIL SCOTT-HERON was rightfully given a place of precedence, communally intoned so as to give the fringes of each syllable the air of a mystery hidden in plain sight. But it was a name from the past, the name of a man who hadn’t released an album since 1994, who had fallen off the map, who may or may not have been dead. Scott-Heron popped up on a 2002 Blackalicious track, but spent most of the decade under the radar of all but the most attuned, doing time for drug charges before slowly reemerging via live performances in 2008 and 2009. And now, suddenly, an album, modestly and knowingly going by the name I’m New Here.
This is not just some half-assed return from an artist whose better days and importance are things of an all but forgotten past. I’m Not Here, produced by XL owner Richard Russell, is a fluid patchwork of spoken word pieces set to grim, clanging industrial soundscapes, short, unadorned fragments of Heron being interviewed (or so they sound), and four songs that range from the doom-soaked, dubby hip-hop atmospherics of “Me and the Devil,” a strange, heavy Robert Johnson cover, to the bluesy, after-hours soul of “I’ll Take Care of You.”
“New York Is Killing Me” places a growling Scott-Heron in a raucous but minimal industrial blues number, somewhere on the outlying borders of Tom Waits territory. The personal lyrics depict the dark side of city living—”They got eight million people and I didn’t have a single friend“—and the desire to start over back in Jackson, Tenn., where Scott-Heron grew up with his maternal grandmother, Lillie Scott, who he elegiacally recalls in the album’s bookending tracks, “On Coming from a Broken Home,” parts one and two. The theme of escape runs through the album, escape through drugs, pacts with the devil, or through simply running away to any kind of shelter from the problems of everyday living.
But there is no escape, not from the world, not from yourself; there is no outside to inhabit and any promise of one is a false promise that carries with it the black seeds of destruction. But Heron’s wisdom here, obviously gained through painful experience, is humbly delivered. As he makes clear on the loose, “I’m New Here,” accompanied by a lone acoustic guitar, he sees himself as an outsider, a man who has been gone so long that he is new again, a new voice in a new time. “I’m shedding plates like a snake, and it may be crazy,” he sings, “but I’m the closest thing I have to a voice of reason.” Hence the search for a different sound palette, for an outside take on contemporary sounds, for an approach that pulls him away from the past as much as it does back into his own, deeply worn shoes.
Listening to I’m New Here is not much like listening to any other album I have heard. The flow from song to poem to Scott-Heron’s asides is swift; proceedings have a stream of consciousness feel to them. But this record embodies a lot of thinking, the outer fringe of a lifetime of thinking about intractable problems. What breaks the surface carries with it events and thoughts that remain submerged in the past, but nevertheless feel present in the rough humanity of Scott-Heron’s voice. I’m Not Here is a rare opportunity to give yourself over to the thoughts and dreams of another human life, to let it pass through you and deposit the kind of residual wisdom that comes close to revealing the contours a singular and stripped-back human soul.
Buy this album at Turntable Lab