Thursday, February 25, 2010

The loved and lonely streets of Gil Scott-Heron's 'I'm New Here'

I didn’t listen to Gil Scott-Heron’s latest album I’m New Here in the way he said to listen to it. And I should have. In the album’s liner notes he says that there is only one way to listen to a new CD: not in your car or on a portable CD player through your headset, but home alone with no one and nothing to distract you, not a phone, nor anything else that makes a noise, but to listen to it in comfort, undisturbed and uninterrupted, all the way through.

And that’s what I should have done but, instead, I bought the CD, loaded it straight onto my iPod and played it in the train on my way home from work. It was not the way to listen to this album – a work which, in all its unromantic, unsentimental rawness, is so powerful, so moving, that it brings the sort of ungarnished emotion to your heart, your gut and inevitably your eyes, that sadly just doesn’t seem to have a place on peak hour public transport.

Gil Scott-Heron has something of a reputation as the godfather of rap, but to describe him as that would be to miss both the grandeur and the simplicity of his art. There’s an enormous gulf between what we experience on I’m New Here, and the commercialised world of today's hip hop.

This is not the jiving rapid-fire dance poetry of disenfranchised youth, but rather the unadorned, unfiltered musings and music of an ageing black man who has done it hard but who still has a soft love for life, for its bumps, its scars, its troughs, its pits. It’s the sort of unglamorous love that finds a place in the hearts of those who lie in the gutters and don’t expect to see the stars – just the pavement is enough.

The music’s story is told in between the brackets of the opening and closing tracks, the two-part ‘On Coming From A Broken Home’, a heart-wrenchingly poignant tale about the women who raised him, told without even a skerrick of self-pity or sentimentality, narrated over pulsating, chugging electronic loops, borrowed from Kanye West and transformed here into something that gives the story its sense of resolution but not resignation.

The pieces surrounded by this tale take us to the darker corners of life: corners where drugs and demons and death confide and collude with each other in music where Scott-Heron’s gruff, gravel-worn voice, as deep as dirt, bleeds the blues, sometimes sung, sometimes spoken, over deep, dark drum beats, sad cellos, or a lonely, barren acoustic guitar.

So when Gil Scott-Heron strolls along with the devil beside him, to sauntering blues, as he does in ‘Me And The Devil’, you stroll there too and it almost feels that your shadow could mingle with theirs and no one would notice.

In the title song, there is softness in the dark, and even hope, with strummed guitar and whispered vocals that tell you that everything comes full circle in time. ‘I’ll Take Care Of You’, with its melting, darkly sustained instrumentals, stabbed with piano and strings, and soulful vocal line, really does make you feel that there is comfort in the blackest night.

This ray of light always seems to peep through the dark, be it in the words, the music or even just in the embracing warmth of Scott-Heron’s voice, like in the ‘Running’, simply spoken over an unsteady heart beat in the drums, or in the more ominous ‘The Crutch’, where haunted music resonates in a dim, abandoned ambience. This is the ray of light that gives this album its sense of hope, its sense of humanity, no matter how bleak a world it inhabits.

Between the more substantial tracks are short interludes, where we hear a line or two of off-the-cuff speech, not necessarily saying all that much in themselves, but still a vital part of giving this album the feel more of a private memoir than of a collection of songs. It’s a story that you hear not because it is being told to you, but because you are eavesdropping.

This is music and poetry that grows raw and naked from its gritty, earthy roots. I’m New Here takes you on an ugly, unsettling journey through an unwelcoming, unattractive world. But it puts its arm around you when it takes you there and it helps you to believe that even here there is a kind of beauty, and something to hope for. It enfolds you in its arms, rough and ready and with the stench of the street, but it’s the embrace of music and poetry that is honest almost to a fault.

Things comes together in I’m New Here in ways that they rarely do anywhere else – hopelessness and hope, emptiness and richness, poetry and music. The lines have never been more beautifully, nor more boldly, blurred than they are here.

Thanks to Greg and to PBS for bringing this phenomenal album to me.

No comments:

Post a Comment