It’s Good to have Gil Back!

Gerry Hassan

February 8th 2010

I come from a broken home
She had more then the five senses
She knew more then books could teach
And raised everyone she touched just a little bit higher
And all around her there was a natural sense

Gil Scott-Heron, ‘On Coming From a Broken Home (Part One)’

Today sees the release of Gil Scott Heron’s new album, ‘I’m New Here’, his first release in sixteen years, and only his second collection in twenty-eight years (1). And boy does it feel that Gil is back, with the album picking up reviews all over the place, and Gil, being interviewed at length in the papers, including a thoughtful piece in ‘The Observer’ by Sean O’Hagan (2).

‘I’m New Here’ is on one level a radical departure in sound and composition for Gil, invoking a contemporary sound which takes from trip-hop and dance loops and mixes them within a soundscape which has a bluesy-Tom Waits feel. And yet, it feels very like Gil, the sort of Gil that would have slowly evolved if he had not departed from the stage for so long haunted by his troubles.

The departure in composition is that several of the tracks on this album are cover versions, but they are expertly chosen, and very much give the impression that they were chosen for the power of their autobiographical relevance to Gil’s lifestory.

The opening and closing tracks, ‘On Coming From a Broken Home Parts One and Two’ give detail of Gil’s life and how he was brought up by his grandmother Lily Scott who gave him ‘life courage’ and the believe in being ‘determined to do more than survive’. In the closing track he reflects:

Too many homes have a missing woman or man

Without the feeling of missing love

Maybe there are homes that are hurt

But there are no real lives that hurt

Without reach but not broken.

The title track, ‘I’m New Here’, originally written by Bill Callahan under the moniker of Smog, seems like the voice of Gil, ‘No matter how far wrong gone, you can always turn around.’ On ‘Your Soul and Mine’ he looks at death:

So if you see the vulture coming

Flying circles in your mind

Remember there is no escaping

For he will follow close behind

Only promise me a battle

For your soul, and mine.

This is a work of someone who has started into the abyss and not only survived, but come through reflecting on who he is, who that face is staring back at him in the mirror, and the power of both darkness and hope. New York is Killing Me’, based on a John Lee Hooker riff, has been totally recast as a breathtaking homage to the city with the Harlem Gospel Choir. ‘I’ll Take Care of You’, a cover of the Bobby Bland track, features a soulful, buoyant Gil with a beautiful piano.

Credit must go to Richard Russell of XL Records for nurturing and cherishing the talent of Gil slowly in the studio and having the audacity to recast Gil for this striking return. We have to hope that this new Gil is not a one off, but the start of a creative rebirth. There are a few worrying signs in the lack of new Gil material, continuing the writers block he has had for over two decades, but the Gil authored tracks here show he still has the touch.

Does it matter that this is a short album, just over 28 minutes long? Well I am not sure, as some of the most brilliant pieces of music ever created were short, focused and disciplined, such as Sinatra’s devastingly subtle album with Antonio Carlos Jobim from ’67 (a mere 28 minutes), or Randy Newman’s ‘Sail Away’ from 1972 (30 minutes), the latter containing some of his greatest tracks such as the title track and ‘Political Science’.

Whether this is a coda in Gil’s career or a new chapter, ‘I’m New Here’ feels fresh, vibrant and original. And we have the joy of Gil back, with the hope of more.