Spoken word soul comes back with edge

by Ashley Dean, News Staff

If you’ve never heard of Gil Scott-Heron, it’s time you did.

Scott-Heron is a spoken word soul performer famous in the late 1960s and early ’70s. His hits included “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a spoken word piece, and “The Bottle,” which is classic funk. He was also well-known for his collaboration with flutist and keyboardist Brian Jackson.

He’s had a spotty career since then, with occasional recordings and performances, but he’s far from the peak he reached a few decades ago.

Well, it’s time Gil Scott-Heron made a comeback. His most recent album, I’m New Here, was released this February, and his sound got an upgrade for 2010.

In the opening of the first track, “On Coming from a Broken Home, Pt.1,” the background from Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” is easily distinguishable. But the tale Scott-Heron tells over the course of the track is gripping and poetic. In his deep, steady voice he growls, “I was hurt and scared and shocked when Lilly Scott left suddenly one night and they sent a limousine from heaven to take her to God, if there is one.”

The second track, “Me and the Devil,” has probably the most notable modern edge. It opens with low, droning synth sounds that build to a steady, strong beat. This track isn’t the poetic spoken word of the first, it’s a heartfelt soul song that would likely be a hit if it got any radio play.

Sadly, radio play might be a bit too hopeful for Scott-Heron. It’s hard not to like his music, but it’s simply not Top 40 material in 2010, no matter how electronic the album gets.

His political voice is not as strong on this album, but a strong sense of the blues still burns through. The title track, “I’m New Here,” is a relaxing but blues-y acoustic guitar piece, and songs like “Where Did the Night Go” or “Running” are no more cheerful. The content of lyrics is heavy, but what’s more is that the words even sound heavy.

“Because I always feel like running,” Scott-Heron growls. “Not away, because there is no such place. Because if there was I would have found it by now. Because it’s easier to run. Easier than staying and finding out you’re the only one who didn’t run. Because running will be the way your life and mine will be described. As in, the long run, or as in heaving given someone a run for his money, or as in running out of time.”

The entire album goes on similarly. It’s not 3OH!3, Ke$ha or even Jay-Z (though you can find a nice mashup of Jay-Z and Scott-Heron on YouTube). It’s a throwback – maybe even a comeback – sometimes sharpened with a modern, electronic edge.

It’s not even recent – I’m New Here dropped more than a month ago, but it’s still worth noting.

Current musicians, while good in their own ways, lack the soul inherent in Scott-Heron’s music. It’s clear that his every word is either delicately chosen or effortlessly and naturally uttered. Even in the spoken interludes of the album, which last no more than 18 seconds, it’s impossible to miss his earnest and sincere messages, delivered in a way only a man of his age and experience can.

“If I hadn’t been as eccentric, as obnoxious, as arrogent, as aggressive, as introspective, as selfish,” he said. “I wouldn’t be me. I wouldn’t be who I am.”

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