Wonky nomenclature notwithstanding, if you’re reading this post and you’ve heard Gil Scott-Heron’s new I’m New Here, you might well agree that it sounds like some weird hybrid of Leonard Cohen and Robert Johnson (and you might be pointed in this direction by Scott-Heron’s cover of “Me and the Devil Blues”, shortened here to “Me and the Devil” and tossed over a beat that wouldn’t be out of place on an El-P record). My Songbird player thinks I’m New Here is hip-hop, but I can’t wholeheartedly agree. Half the fucking thing doesn’t even rhyme. E-Music, where I got I’m New Here, describes Scott-Heron as a rapper, a street poet, and a jazz artist. That comes a little closer. The only album I’ve heard that comes close to the spoken/sung stories of I’m New Here is Alix Olson’s Built Like That, though the latter is brimming with an abundance of feminist outrage and the former is brimming with an abundance of mother-love. Scott-Heron’s obvious love and respect for his family is a theme that would not always have resonated with me, but events of the last few years have helped me appreciate my own family a great deal (though I still have some relatives I like less than I like Wavves and I solemnly swear that I will never write songs about my parents or any kids I may have).
Scott-Heron starts the album by making it a “special dedication” to the women who raised him and points out that “I was full grown/ before I knew that I came from a broken home.” I gotta confess I was a little weary at that point because I have strong feelings about musicians writing songs about their kids and parents, feelings that mostly amount to, “Songs about parents and or kids always suck. Don’t write them.” For the record, “Father of Mine” by Everclear is the worst offender in the “songs about parents” category. In fact, just thinking of that song makes me want to punch Art Alexakis in the face. Anyway, I’m New Here isn’t really a concept album about how great Scott-Heron’s mom and grandma were (though interludes about parental wisdom, and wisdom in general, punctuate the album). It starts there and branches out into late night musings about how Scott-Heron stays up late drinking beer when he should be sleeping (who hasn’t been there?) and has romantic misadventures. In other words, the themes of I’m New Here distill down to the blues, tempered with the wisdom of Gil Scott-Heron’s sixty-odd years (some of which were spent in jail on drug charges, apparently. Thanks, internet!).
On the title track, a Smog cover, Scott-Heron sings, “I’m the closest thing I have/ to a voice of reason,” (that’s one hell of a line, that is) and it occurs to me, listening to it for about the eighth time now, that I’m New Here is a comfortably frank record. Scott-Heron is looking inward and looking back, trying to rebuild himself in the here and now without whitewashing his past. Maybe that’s a product of his age, but I’m loathe to say so because I think the phrase “older and wiser” is too often trotted out to suggest that you gain intelligence simply by occupying space on the planet and not dying. But I get the feeling Gil Scott-Heron has lived the kind of life from which you either wise up or die – it shows in his voice, which is mostly down in the murky cellar occupied by the rumbling vocals of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits (only a complete moron would think that’s bad company and I’m assuming that you’re not a moron if you have the good taste to read Bollocks!).
So I’m New Here has a fragile sort of beauty to it, though it’s so fleeting that it can feel a little incomplete. Allow me to argue with myself about this point for a minute: I’m New Here is roughly a half an hour, seemingly attempting to encompass an entire man’s life. From that angle it seems rushed and, as I said, incomplete. But Gil Scott-Heron’s life is incomplete, right? He may sound like it sometimes, but the dude is not broadcasting this record from beyond the grave. And there’s something to be said for simple, brief storytelling. It keeps the album from getting self-indulgent (a major trap for albums with this kind of very personal subject matter) and probably also helps to save it from the temptation to get preachy. Scott-Heron is sagacious enough to stick with telling you how he’s lived his life and not trying to tell you how to live yours.
The spoken-word bits are usually clever and brief (again, keeps ’em from getting indulgent. Dude is talking about his short life, not trying to rewrite “Howl”) and the actual songs are pretty great too, especially the title track and “New York is Killing Me”. I hope, at Coachella, Gil Scott-Heron and James Murphy find a way to combine “New York is Killing Me” with the LCD Soundsystem non-anthem “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” On second thought, that might sound terrible.
I’ve argued with myself a lot about I’m New Here and tried to figure out how to approach it and what I think it should be and why on earth I’d want to listen to it and, at the end of the day, I like this album but I don’t really have many occasions to listen to it. So far, my favorite trip through this record was this very night, sitting at my dining table with a glass of Ninkasi Total Domination IPA (now available at California BevMos. So if you live in California and have never had Ninkasi beer, go get yourself some Total Domination and some Oatis Oatmeal Stout. Now) and an otherwise silent apartment. I was particularly struck by the lines in “Where Did the Night Go” about drinking beer when he should’ve been sleeping and turning the records over so he wouldn’t be up alone. That seems to be the best context for enjoying I’m New Here: when you need a friendly voice and a stiff drink in the wee hours.