I'm New Here: Gil Scott-Heron

The performance poet Gil Scott-Heron comes back with an intimate CD that recalls him at his most majestic.

Who imagined that Gil Scott-Heron would come through with a record at this stage in his career? The 60-year-old performance poet had been promising one since 2007, but since those promises barely wriggled through the gap between jail stretches for drug offences, they offered small hope. Yet here it is: an essential comeback from an American icon, and Rick Rubin nowhere in sight. "I'm new here, and I forget - does that mean big, or small?" Scott-Heron intones over an acoustic guitar on the title track. As it turns out, it means both. The scale is intimate: the disc opens with an unsentimental spoken-word reminiscence of his upbringing by Lillie Scott - "absolutely not your mail-order, type-cast, room service black grandmother" - and his wracked voice sounds about an inch from your ear. Only a Kanye West sample twinkling in the background suggests the ambition of the record that follows. There are tracks that recall Scott-Heron at his most majestic, as on his proto-rap polemics The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Whitey on the Moon. Yet now his death's-door rasp lends an extra frisson - not least on Your Soul and Mine, where he can deliver portentous lines such as "Charon brought his raft from the sea that sails on souls" without raising the ghost of a smirk. The production is a clanking, echoing dubscape. It comes as a shock after the jazz-funk of Scott-Heron's finest releases, but it's unexpectedly suitable foil for his chain-gang blues wail, and a better one for his poetry - hard, desiccated, but very much alive.