Each season of the critically acclaimed HBO original series The Wire opened with a rendition of Tom Waits' harrowing blues song, "Way Down in the Hole" — a cut that impeccably set the tone for the gritty hour of drama that followed. Both the Blind Boys of Alabama and Waits himself delivered individual distressing, powerful versions that lubed one's mood, making it easy to (imaginatively) slip into the debauched Baltimore underworld the series portrayed. But if there were a way to mesh these two aforementioned performances together, the result wouldn't arrive as a third "Way Down" interpretation. Rather, it would sound like the second song on Gil Scott-Heron's brave return to recording following 16 years away.
Scott-Heron bookends the half-hour record with a painful narrative poem titled "On Coming from a Broken Home." It's the poet's ode to the women who raised him. It's also a poem every teenage victim of divorce attempts to write — but only a haggard 60-year-old man who's stood on death's door could get right. After the first version of the tune, we hear the song that sounds like that aforementioned hybrid. The first of a few covers on this disc, it's a vexing trip-hop-laced saunter through Robert Johnson's infamous "Me and the Devil Blues," and it is, in a word, heavy. The deep and simple head-banger beat could throw those who discovered the poet via jazz for a loop. Not that strange, though, when one considers that Scott-Heron's first record Small Talk at 125th and Lenox — and its opening track (still his most famous), "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" — are rightfully considered the pre-eminent proto-rap productions. So I'm New Here's decidedly hip-hop romps aren't at all forced or fabricated.
But there are beautiful jazzy tracks here too, such as "I'll Take Care of You," which spotlights flashes of a younger Gil Scott-Heron, before social disillusionment, soul-fracturing depression, crack cocaine addiction and a few stints in prison made him invisible to the public during the last decade or so.
The album is not simply a return to form, though — it's a long-awaited forward progression. Produced by XL label owner Richard Russell, I'm New Here features work from the prolific Damon Albarn (Gorillaz, Blur) and samples from Kanye West. There's nothing pop about this record, though. Devoid of 12-bar riffs, it's frequently the best blues offering we've heard in decades. And on the record's acoustic guitar-backed title track, Scott-Heron delivers what might be considered his best attempt at a public apology: "I did not become someone different that I did not want to be / but I'm new here / will you show me around?" Then, singing off-key, he reconciles, "No matter how far wrong you've gone, you can always turn around." Amen.
Travis R. Wright is culture and arts editor of Metro Times. Write to Travis R. Wright at metrotimes.com.