McCraven and company are able to leave the listener with a far more definitive statement about reckoning with one’s own legacy, decisions and life’s work.
When it was originally released in 2010, Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here was seen as a welcome return from a highly influential artist who’d been largely relegated to the sidelines. Teaming with modern producers to create a (then) modern sound, Scott-Heron sounded revitalized and once again culturally relevant. Ten years on, the album sounds very much of its time, albeit without having lost any of its punch thanks to Scott-Heron’s words.
For We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven, the forward-thinking drummer and producer stripped away all of the circa-2010 instrumentation, leaving only the rawness of Scott-Heron’s voice. From there, he and a time of like-minded, jazz-based progressive musicians (the majority of whom are currently killing it on the Chicago-based International Anthem label) reconstructed the whole of the album from the ground up to create something even more musically and emotionally impactful than the original. It’s a testament to the creative spirit and one which manages to wholly transcend its source material to create something that surpasses the original’s perceived brilliance by breathing new and timeless life into words that themselves have and will continue to withstand the test of time.
In its original incarnation, “I’m New Here” is a sparse, acoustic guitar-based recitation that borders on being a bit of talking blues-style folk, Scott-Heron singing the song’s chorus in a gentle series of quietly ascending tones. Reimagined, the guitar is replaced by the gently propulsive harp of Brandee Younger and underscored by McCraven’s quietly galloping drumming. It’s an inspired reworking of a bare-bones track that helps to illustrate McCraven and company’s creative brilliance, something that comes up time and again throughout We’re New Again.
On “Running,” the original’s more industrial percussion is replaced by a wickedly funky hip-hop groove that far better serves the rhythmic nature of Scott-Heron’s lyrics, making the words all the more powerful and resonant. Similarly, the more syncopated approach to the original version of “New York Is Killing Me” is removed in favor of something far more rhythmically and instrumentally chaotic and better serving the verses. In essence, McCraven here excels in stripping away any and all traces of the original album’s instrumental arrangements to better get at the heart of Scott-Heron’s words, creating an aural backing much more suited to the emotion behind each performance.
A notable exception to this approach is “I’ll Take Care of You,” a track which, in its original incarnation was far more driving and intense than it is here. It’s again dominated by Younger’s coruscating harp and accentuated as it reaches it midpoint by McCraven’s imaginative series of grooves that skirt the original’s more intentionally driving approach. In its place is a more loping, introspective piece that helps better shrive Scott-Heron’s titular offer.
The heart of the album is the newly-structured “Broken Home” poem, here separated out into four parts, each more resonant than the next. “Special Tribute (Broken Home pt. 1)” eases into the record with a bit of burbling electronics, while “The Patch (Broken Home pt. 2)” rolls along on a funky bass figure courtesy of Junius Paul. “Lily Scott (Broken Home pt. 3)” allows guitarist Jeff Parker a chance to stretch out alongside Younger’s harp. But it’s “Guided (Broken Home pt. 4)” where McCraven manages to not only tie together the narrative threads of Scott-Heron’s “Broken Home” poem, but also make it deeply personal by using a vintage recording of his own mother playing flute and his father playing the kalimba. When Scott-Heron intones, “God bless you momma, and thank you” near the track’s end, it becomes doubly effective and helps hammer home the message being conveyed by both artists across the span of a decade.
In addition to reimagining each track for the better, the album has been resequenced to create a stronger narrative flow, something that was certainly present on the original, albeit a bit more abstract. By tightening the narrative focus, We’re New Again helps make all the more powerful the words coming out of Scott-Heron’s mouth, emphasizing the emotional resonance of the more autobiographical pieces. By closing with “Me and the Devil,” for instance – a track that fell in the second slot on the original album – McCraven and company are able to leave the listener with a far more definitive statement about reckoning with one’s own legacy, decisions and life’s work. In this, We’re New Again proves itself to be a musical triumph.