Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Gil Scott-Heron [extended]

  • Winter in America [Strata-East, 1974] C+
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Televised [Flying Dutchman, 1974] B+
  • The First Minute of a New Day [Arista, 1975] B
  • From South Africa to South Carolina [Arista, 1975] B+
  • It's Your World [Arista, 1976] A-
  • Bridges [Arista, 1977] B
  • Secrets [Arista, 1978] B+
  • 1980 [Arista, 1980] A-
  • Real Eyes [Arista, 1980] B+
  • Reflections [Arista, 1981] B+
  • Moving Target [Arista, 1983] B
  • The Best of Gil Scott-Heron [Arista, 1984] A-
  • Spirits [TVT, 1994] Neither
  • I'm New Here [XL, 2010] *
  • We're New Here [XL, 2011] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Gil Scott-Heron/Brian Jackson: Winter in America [Strata-East, 1974]
The jazz poet turns jazz singer--good idea, only he had a better beat and just slightly less melody when he was reading. Exception: "The Bottle," which you can dance to. C+

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised [Flying Dutchman, 1974]
The "hairy-armed women's liberationists" of the title track are still with us, but at least this compilation avoids the fag-baiting that dishonored his first album, not the only sign of growth. His agitprop has lost a lot of punk arrogance over the decade without surrendering commitment, and as he learns to sing his compassion becomes palpable. B+

Gil Scott-Heron, Brian Jackson and the Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day [Arista, 1975]
The improvement in this poet-turned-musician suggests that white singer-songwriters could benefit from commitment to a musically sophisticated culture. He's got it, and he flaunts it. The singing will get stronger, and maybe someday every lyric will compare with the inspiring, despondent "Winter in America." In the meantime, the free-jazz-gone-populist band generates so much rhythmic energy that it carries over the weak spots. One heartfelt suggestion: no more long poetry reading, at least on record. I laughed at "Pardon Our Analysis" the first time, but now I find myself avoiding side one. B

Gil Scott-Heron/Brian Jackson: From South Africa to South Carolina [Arista, 1975]
This is what happened to Pharoah Sanders and I say yeah. The danceability of Jackson's music reifies the tribal aspirations of new-thing avant-gardism just as Scott-Heron's talent for modest analysis brings all that cosmic politicking down to earth. Also, I'm really getting to like Scott-Heron's singing--his instrument will never equal Leon Thomas's or Pharoah's, but that's not what it's about. B+

Gil Scott-Heron/Brian Jackson: It's Your World [Arista, 1976]
The original version of "The Bottle," a protest songpoem about people who live in glass containers, was a disco hit, and now Arista is trying to break the live version on the radio, but these efforts have been disdained by discriminating progressive programmers everywhere--after all, how serious can it be if people dance to it? I hope you know the answer. If anything proves how serious Scott-Heron has become, it's the infectious groove running through all four sides of this concert album. You've heard of selling out? This is selling in. A-

Gil Scott-Heron/Brian Jackson: Bridges [Arista, 1977]
Quite rapidly, Scott-Heron has developed into a reliable pro, like some old country singer. The music and singing provide lasting service, and the words evolve with the times, which is the point. In a self-annointed aesthete, that would be tantamount to failure, but for a message artist it's high praise. As long as his eye stays fresh, I don't believe Scott-Heron can make a bad album, and his fans will like this one OK. B

Gil Scott-Heron/Brian Jackson: Secrets [Arista, 1978]
Scott-Heron stokes the protest-music flame more generously than any son of Woody, and in sheer agitprop terms "Angel Dust," one of those black-radio hits that somehow never crossed over, is his triumph--haunting music of genuine political usefulness. Of course, it would be hard to imagine the Arista promo team busting its butt to get "Third World Revolution" on the air as a follow-up, even if it had a hook, but I'll settle for a tribulations-of-stardom song with an educational refrain: "Do you really want to be in show bizness?" B+

Gil Scott-Heron/Brian Jackson: 1980 [Arista, 1980]
Having already written more good antinuke songs than the rest of MUSE put together, they add a third on their best album ever. The melodies are only functional but the rhythms are seductive and the singing is warm. And then there's the words. Subjects include compromise (necessary), "surviving" (cop-out), aliens (surviving), the shah (dead), the road (long), and the future (here). A-

Real Eyes [Arista, 1980]
Never would have believed it, but the switch from Brian Jackson's supportive groove to Carl Cornwell's elliptical horn charts adds intellectual and historical weight to the songs that merely say good things as well as those that put them pungently. The two that constitute the latter category kick this off like the great album he's got in him. The two that say sentimental things slowly and unredeemed by Jackson's groove and Cornwell's flute, respectively. B+

Reflections [Arista, 1981]
"'B' Movie," his smartest political rap ever, is also his first airplay hit since "Angel Dust," maybe because black radio cherishes no expectation of crossing over to Ray-Gun. Hooray. But no less than four cuts--the jazz and reggae tributes as well as the Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye covers--are diminished by the mere serviceability of Scott-Heron's post-Brian Jackson musical conception (execution?), because each invokes the power of music that only becomes truly powerful when it's more than serviceable. That's not to say each of them isn't of service, though. B+

Moving Target [Arista, 1983]
With Malcolm Cecil coproducing, Scott-Heron's music comes back strong--the horns and rhythm are progressive funk as it was meant to be, Tower of Power without Vegas, dissonant and intricate and talky and natural. But the Caribbean inflections are compromised enough to suit a lyric that sounds commissioned by the Jamaican Tourist Board if not Edward Seaga himself, and while this album has plenty of good parts, they come together only on the side-openers: two on side one, one on side two. B

The Best of Gil Scott-Heron [Arista, 1984]
Good that he refuses to shy away from explicit revolutionary reference, but 1980's "Third World Revolution" would have spared us the "hairy-armed women's liberationists" Scott-Heron's been smearing ever since he recorded "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" in his angry immaturity fifteen years ago. Besides, it's catchier. From "The Bottle" to "Re-Ron," though, this should convince doubting sympathizers that effective political art--aesthetically effective political art, I mean--isn't tantamount to avant-garde polarization. It's got a good line, and you can dance to it. A-

Spirits [TVT, 1994] Neither

I'm New Here [XL, 2010]
The premise isn't "I'm new here," it's "I'm not dead," and he strains mightily to get 28 spare minutes out of it ("Me and the Devil," "On Coming From a Broken Home [Part 1]"). *

Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx: We're New Here [XL, 2011]
The Richard Russell-produced original of the revolutionary-poet-turned-brokedown-crack-addict's first studio album in 16 years strove respectfully to put a good face on--who exactly? The "survivor"? The "outsider"? The "revolutionary"? The hip-hop godfather? The colorful old black guy? Granting that the moving force was Russell, my Honorable Mention stands: "The premise isn't 'I'm new here,' it's 'I'm not dead,' and he strains mightily to get 28 spare minutes out of it." A year later Scott-Heron was in fact dead, and a year after that came this radical remix, which to my mind respects Scott-Heron more truthfully by chopping him to bits. This Scott-Heron is a drug fiend of considerable perversity and tremendous intelligence who's gonna be dead soon. Jamie xx hears in his last testament an irreversible disintegration that he translates into heavily sampled minimalist electro marked indelibly by Scott-Heron's weariness, arrogance, and wit. In part it's just a young man's bad dream about mortality, and of interest as such. But the snatches of Scott-Heron's voice, cracked for sure but deeper than night nonetheless, delivers it from callow generalization and foregone conclusion. A-