released 21 February 2011 on XL
Before having heard it, I was glad Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 album, I’m New Here, existed. It’s a compelling story: 1970s counter-cultural icon overcomes personal strife to return, older and much wiser, and make a modern and exciting record. Verdict: anticipation matched by result. Hooray.
Similarly, before having heard We’re New Here, Scott-Heron’s “collaboration” of sorts with Jamie Smith of London upstarts The xx, I was glad it existed too. Again, another great story: stellar comeback album remixed by one of the rising stars of UK music in an intriguing marriage of opposites. Verdict: well, it’s good, but it’s no I’m New Here.
Smith’s certainly had an interesting idea with this album. Scott-Heron’s not been involved with the musical side of things, Smith taking his vocal tracks from I’m New Here and creating something entirely new and different. Whereas Scott-Heron primarily trades in gritty, grizzled soul, Smith is a dance producer, and Scott-Heron’s voice gives Smith’s creations a certain gravitas.
Despite Smith’s tender years, he’s clearly heavily influenced by the early 90s UK dance scene he’s barely old enough to remember. Running utilises old-school hip-hop beats and The Crutch sounds like something from the early days of trance or breakbeat. This, plus the numerous interludes and snatches of spoken-word performance from Scott-Heron, give We’re New Here the feeling of a mixtape or DJ set, rather than a traditional album.
If you’re thinking it’s a touch on the bizarre side to make a Gil Scott-Heron dance record, you’re right, it is, and occasionally the limitations of the concept are exposed. Smith is working within fairly fixed parameters, and on some tracks, Home and Ur Soul And Mine are notable examples, the approach falls flat. On these songs, Scott-Heron’s vocals add nothing and it’s surely only to keep consistency that they’re included at all.
But when Smith gets it right, it really works and – potentially controversial statement alert – some tracks are superior to the songs they’re based on. My Cloud has become a lurching, druggy, blissed-out reverie with Scott-Heron as some kind of hippie sage. NY Is Killing Me (yes, the “modernising” of track names is totally unnecessary) is probably the heaviest and most unrecognisable song on show, with its siren-like riff, techno bleeps and unremitting jungle beats – it’s completely immersive and cathartic, though. Even the interludes have been reworked, with background chatter, skittering percussion and jazz chords.
No review of We’re New Here would be complete, however, without a few words about the album’s best track; one that is equal parts gorgeous, heartfelt and addictive. I’ll Take Care Of You was arguably the highlight of I’m New Here and Smith’s reimagining, I’ll Take Care Of U, is irresistible. Smith takes the piano chords of the original and, by adding an earworm of a melody, turns it into something that sounds like the very best of Chicago house. I don’t usually recommend listening to individual album tracks out of context, but since this isn’t a normal record, an exception can be made. If you only download and/or listen to one track from We’re New Here, make it this one.
While it may not attain the dizzy heights of I’m New Here, Smith’s deftness ensures that We’re New Here is far more than just a vanity project. On occasion, he’s penned in by his own restrictions, but there’s enough here to suggest he’s got a real future in production. Who’d have thought it? A member of Britain’s best new band of the last couple of years is also potentially the best remixer and producer too. Not fair, is it?