Reviews: Gil Scott-Heron and Peter Gabriel

February 23, 2010



Born in Chicago but raised in Tennessee, Gil Scott-Heron is rightly hailed as one of the architects of hip-hop: His mergers of smart, political, streetwise poetry with jazz and R&B through the '70s predicted the sound that would explode in the '80s and become one of the dominant forces in popular culture to this day. "The revolution will not be televised," he famously warned. He turned out to be wrong about that, though it's certainly true that neither he nor the exact uprising he envisaged ever got the time they deserved on MTV.

Jailed several times over the last decade for drug possession and parole violations, Scott-Heron hadn't released a new recording in 16 years. Harboring dreams of what some have described as a Rick Rubin/Johnny Cash-like partnership and late-career revival, XL label head Richard Russell approached Heron while the artist was serving a three-year sentence on Rikers Island. Now we have the result of their collaboration, which was further enhanced by the star power and instrumental contributions of Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz).

Unfortunately, rather than the sympathetic ear for Cash's strengths that Rubin brought to that pairing, Russell fumbles with musical backings that are alien and unsuccessful, from the awkward mixture of Massive Attack and Robert Johnson on "Me and the Devil" to the misguided cover of the title track by indie rockers Smog. But rest of the blame belongs solely to the 60-year-old vocalist and lyricist.

The clarion call of that once potent voice is now a lazy slur, and rather than turning his formerly piercing gaze on recent events that seem like new chapters in his life-long novel--from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina to the election of President Obama-- Scott-Heron turns inward for bland philosophizing and surprisingly hollow personal reflections, as exemplified by the two-part opening and closing track "On Coming from a Broken Home," a tribute to his grandmother powered by a sample from Kanye West, who has previously sampled him.

Is Scott-Heron capable of better at this stage in his life and career? What could this album have sounded like if Kanye had been his partner instead of Russell? It's impossible to say based on the unfulfilling sounds of these 15 tracks, which clock in at less than 30 minutes. But it's only fair to compare them to the best this artist has given us in the past, and they fall far short of that storied mark.


Peter Gabriel's impressive career neatly divides into three distinct eras: the progressive-rock years with Genesis (1969 to 1974); the first stretch of his solo incarnation (1977 to 1992), which saw him morph from a wildly inventive art-rocker into an unlikely pop star with "So" and "Us," and what will inevitably be the final act. And if the 60-year-old singer's output has slowed to a trickle during this last phase--with only two proper studio albums in the last 18 years--well, no one can accuse him of churning out recycled product like so many of his peers.

Yes, the covers album can be a sure sign of artistic bankruptcy, or at least a songwriting well run dry. But Gabriel's effort is distinguished by several twists, starting with his as-yet unfulfilled challenge to fellow musicians to return the favor by covering songs from his catalog. Next, the finest moments come not from fellow Baby Boom heroes such as David Bowie ("Heroes"), Neil Young ("Philadelphia") or Paul Simon ("The Boy in the Bubble"), but courtesy of much more current indie/underground acts including Bon Iver ("Flume"), Regina Spektor ("Après moi"), the Arcade Fire ("My Body is a Cage"), the Magnetic Fields ("The Book of Love") and Radiohead ("Street Spirit (Fade Out)").

On most of these songs, Gabriel bravely (and sometimes unsuccessfully) recasts the original upbeat readings into renditions that are much darker, more brooding and more introspective. But most daringly of all, given that his solo career has largely been defined by his innovative use of world rhythms, he relies solely on spare orchestral instrumentation and his voice, eschewing drums and percussion.

That voice has of course aged, but the growing scratchiness only enhances the fragile emotions and intimate vibe of the best of these readings. In the end, "Scratch My Back" doesn't break new ground, and it is unlikely to win new fans--unless we count some of the folks Gabriel has covered. But it ultimately is a much richer and more satisfying effort than his last studio disc, "Up" (2002), and it shows that he is still willing to stretch, take chances and challenge our vision of the singer we think we've known for more than four decades.