Fresh to Death
“Hold onto your rosary beads / Close your eyes and watch me die.” Originally written in 1971 in “Home is Where the Hatred is,” Gil Scott-Heron sang these words as morbid and emphatic autobiography. Forty years on, re-recorded with production from Jamie Smith of London’s The xx, they take on the patina of detached storytelling from a sage observer. They promised more and even better from the jazz poet. How sad, then, that the pair’s collaboration We’re New Here would be Scott-Heron’s last work before his drug- and HIV-ravaged body finally failed him in May 2011.
Our reintroduction to Scott-Heron began in 2010 with I’m New Here, a well-regarded set of spoken and sung ruminations produced (through a glass, darkly) by XL Recordings head Richard Russell. Our introduction to Smith came in 2009 as The xx and their debut xx album conquered the world in no small part due to his spacious, minimalist beats. Their meeting on We’re New Here begs an intriguing creative question: Was it GSH who was vibrant and varied enough to carry an electronic album, or was it Jamie xx who was skilled enough to create a winning “remix album” from challenging source material?
We can likely take a hint from, of all places, the We’re New Here album cover: While the colors are pulled from GSH’s album, the layout hints at The xx’s album and a piece of their logo—the suggestion of Jamie Smith broken away, left of center. Outside of the group that helped make him, Smith’s sonic palette has the opportunity to grow exponentially behind Scott-Heron’s voice. Let’s ignore the album’s interludes; Jamie xx attempts to recreate a different electronic genre on each of the LP’s major tracks, and hits a home run pretty much every time.
Smith redecorates the sparse originals “Running” and “The Crutch” in neo-R&B and old-school turntablist colors, respectively. He transforms “I’m New Here” from bachelor-pad guitar pop into dubstep, and extracts from “I’ll Take Care of U” a piano-soul heart for transplantation into ecstatic house. “Ur Soul and Mine” recalls Josh Wink’s pressurized leftfield techno, Scott-Heron’s disconnected vocal sample a “How’s the music?” or “Are you there?” for the Teens.
Newly-sourced GSH vocals give Jamie xx a platform for solid efforts in digital dub (“Home”) and jazz (“My Cloud”). “NY is Killing Me,” however, is part rubbery groove, part alarm klaxon of twangy keys and pitched-up female vocals. It’s transcendent in that it’s impossible to pin down within any subgenre of bass music, and therefore all the more fascinating. We’re New Here suggests the two artists have that in common here as well. We’re culturally poorer for having lost one, but we can’t wait to see what the other does next.