Gil Scott-Heron‘s new album was released, after heavy trailing from a sympathetic media, earlier this year and to a good set of reviews. The troubles that have stalked him (and which contributed to the hiatus) are well documented – and it’s clear that some of his addictions remain (the front cover portrays him having a smoke). Scott-Heron’s demons also clearly continue (the decision to cover Robert Johnson’s ‘Me And The Devil’, with one crucial change of word which makes Johnson’s original hard to listen to, was inspired) and the album is a dark and uncomfortable ride both musically and verbally. The title track (a cover) in Scott-Heron’s hands becomes a frank motivational tribute to the remarkable regenerative power of the human spirit, while the poetry which starts and closes the album – the first his tribute to Lillie Scott, the grandmother who raised him, is moving but unsentimental; the second, his re-statement of what it means to come from a broken home, is powerful and defiant – is vintage Scott-Heron.
Truth to tell, the original material on the album is pretty sparse – one-third of the 15 tracks are spoken excerpts – and a couple of the others are tracks which, in terms of length, certainly don’t out-stay their welcome. Don’t get me wrong – this is not an album packed with filler – but there’s not a great deal of evidence on the strength of this that Scott-Heron is back to stay. The Guardian‘s review of the Scott-Heron gig at the Royal Festival Hall also doesn’t fill one with hope that he’s still got it. At 61, perhaps that’s asking a lot for a man whose role in the development of modern black music is already assured. Steve Earle proves that its perfectly possible for a man to emerge from a personal hell and still produce great music over an extended period – but Earle continues to be inspired by the many injustices that stalk America whereas I’m New Here is exclusively a personal album. Time will tell whether getting this sort of album out proves cathartic enough to allow Scott-Heron to get back to producing his own insights into what is going wrong with the world. We need him.