“Pieces Of A Man” is the debut studio album from singer, songwriter and multi musician Gil Scott-Heron.
I believe this is one of the greatest albums ever made. Yep, I just made that statement but along with that it is one of the most unknown Soul/Jazz/Funk/Blues albums every recorded with it not having any big hits and only one song that people may be familiar with which oddly sounds like nothing on the set at all.
Perhaps it was just the time of my life of listening to this album which allowed it to resonate so much with me. I was listening to Kayne West’s second album “Late Registration” and there is a track called “My Way Home” which features a slowed down sample from a track off “Pieces Of A Man” called “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” and from that moment I had to investigate further to who this man was.
This album has so much depth to it with Scott-Heron baring his soul in an unapologetic and direct way which on certain songs may seem a little simplistic but the point is made clearly.
The production on this album is just gorgeous. The jazzier songs create a world of their own where the vocals seem like they are just a small addition as the instrumentation is so full that it could survive without any lyrics at all.
It would be easy to judge the album on the first track “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” as this song for me is like a very long intro and not really a part of the rest of the projects content or feel.
This opening track is not rap but spoken word. It was written as a poem and included on the live album which proceeded this one. This track in itself could have it’s own review due to the plethora of meanings that are included.
So I’ll try to keep it short and say that this song is iconic. It was released in 1971 but lyrically as relevant as ever in 2017. The song talks about the rise of people, the white power dominating America, Police shooting black people, and the commercialism flowing through the country.
The song is strong lyrically but oh so cool. The groove is laden with richness and swagger which as an album opener is surely one of the greatest first tracks ever.
What we get with the 2nd track “Save The Children” is more what the album is all about. I suppose it still retains the social commentary that ‘Revolution’ did but this song is much softer and has this laid back sweet atmosphere.
This track sees Scott-Heron simply talking about how we need to safeguard our children’s future as they will be at the heart of social struggles in years to come. The education of our children can change what the future for all people will look like moving forward.
“Save The Children” has no hidden agenda and is upfront in it’s lyrical content. A smooth groove which is so chilled can perhaps hinder the lyrical meaning as the seriousness of what he is saying doesn’t fit with the wonderful instrumentation.
When it comes to great instrumentation the 3rd song “Lady Day & John Coltrane” is just so on point. The way this Jazz groove is held down is executed so brilliantly that it makes you want to hear the song without the vocals.
The song is a homage to Billie Holliday & John Coltrane, both whom are influences to Scott-Heron. The content of the lyrics is something that we have heard before and since which is how music can be the way out of bad situations and something that can be a powerful tool is dealing with the troubles of today.
“Home Is Where The Hatred Is” is a song which no doubt makes my top 20 of all time. The melody, the music, the lyrics hit a point in me which instantly grabs my attention no matter how many times I have heard it.
The lyrics of this sing are probably some of the best Scott-Heron ever wrote. The story of a man who has left home due to his addiction problems are met so powerfully by some striking lyrics of despair and loneliness. The feeling that we have no where to go and no where to turn when it should be home that makes us feel safe yet actually ends up being where the problems lie.
Home is where I live inside my white powder dreams
home was once an empty vacuum that’s filled now with my silent screams
home is where the needle marks
try to heal my broken heart
and it might not be such a bad idea if I never, if I never went home again
The mood is lifted with “When You Are Who You Are” which is a lively Jazz number which has Scott-Heron telling this person that they should stop pretending to be someone else and just be themselves because they are beautiful when they do so.
Whilst the lyrics are little cheesy the instrumentation on this song is the best on the entire album. The guitar solo is so perfect as is the entire way the song is engineered and mixed.
The song is flawless.
“I Think I’ll Call It Morning” is probably one of the most conventional tracks with it being a straight up soul song. For all the seriousness of some of his lyrics when you get something so uplifting like this it can really strike a chord.
Whilst listening to this album for the purpose of this review I just recalled the feelings of listening to this song for the first time. It is so raw and full of emotion. It is like something has clicked within him and he is going to pick himself up from his problems and move forward. Stunning.
Cause why should I hang my head
Why should I let tears fall from my eyes?
When I’ve seen everything there is to see
And I know there is no sense in crying
I know there ain’t no sense in crying
Yeah I think I’ll call it morning
From now on
The title track “Pieces Of A Man” delves us back into the world that Scott-Heron is trying to depict for us. This song is immersed in sadness and is a tale of his father who was completely broken by the letter he received from the mailman saying that he had lost his job.
Scott-Heron paints the scene with vivid expression as he touches on the social portrayal of black men in America during this time and how they were looked upon and treated.
The letter that has arrived is torn up by his father and Scott-Heron recalls that this was the point where he saw his father fall to pieces. His father is arrested and Scott-Heron points out that they are only arresting pieces of a man.
The job that was taken away from him denied him the chance to live a life doing a ‘white’ persons job and this loss was the end of all of that. This song is powerful and utterly magnificent.
“A Sign Of The Ages” gets a little lost after such a powerful track like “Pieces Of A Man” and because of it’s similar instrumentation it is difficult to distinguish that you have in fact gone on to another song.
Again the track talks about the struggle to keep yourself going when things seem so desperate and without hope. The Piano solo on this track is so pristine it just is musical heaven.
The 9th track is “Or Down You Fall” continues the theme of the previous song in that it shows a man who is aware of the perils of his life but tries to make sense of things by getting into his head that the world is a simple circle that keeps on turning and falling down may be his outcome but until that moment he has to keep going.
Like many of the tracks on this fine album you can take away all the vocals and just enjoy the pure brilliance of the music. The instrumentation is so complete with an unmitigated sense of emotion running through every instrument you here.
“The Needle’s Eye” sees Scott-Heron mention in the first line “A Circle Spinning faster” which I believe is a reference to the previous track where he describes life as a circle.
The songs title is a reference to the Bible quote from Matthew 19:23-24 where is is written:
I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
I think lyrically it is one of the weaker songs on the album as there isn’t much to it and without knowing about the bible verse then it makes little sense.
The final track is “The Prisoner”. This is a dramatic song which starts with the clinking of chains and an off key Cello to create the atmosphere of darkness and pain.
Then the piano kicks in for what is a quite majestic song.
Scott-Heron’s voice isn’t perfect but on this song it works because it conveys the feeling of hopelessness. The lyrics are not talking about physically being in prison but the feeling of being trapped in ones life and constantly being dragged down by the social conditions that a man (a black man) find himself in.
“Pieces Of A Man” is a seminal album. Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were more commercially successful with their albums which highlighted many of the same issues but under the guise of R&B these albums were perhaps easier to sell to the public.
Nevertheless, Gil Scott-Heron has produced album a equal qualities with some wonderful songs that are timeless. The production is up there with anything I have heard and the lyrics are powerful and relevant to any era.
Gil Scott-Heron was man who struggled throughout his life with addiction but this has only served to make his music a formidable entry to the world. A world class lyricist and one who may not be as known to many as he should but remains one of the most important artists I have ever listened to.
One thought on “Pieces Of A Man – Gil Scott-Heron (1971)”
I do not know the name of the reviewer, but it is an excellent and insightful review in my opinion. His appreciation of the instrumentation is appreciated, yet Gil Scott Heron actually gets better in later albums. Still, I agree this is the greatest launch of an artist ever. As a kid, I thought Stevie Wonder’s Fingertips was it, though it was strictly commercial. I must point out that you were dead eye on point comparing the social commentary of Wonder and Marvin Gaye with the earlier, more resonating, more down to earth efforts of Mr. Scott-Heron. I think you overlooked some critical aspects of his lyrics due to rightful appreciation of but over-focus on the instrumentation (appreciated as it were).
1. “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” has a prominent theme as “You keep saying kick it quit it, kick it quit. Lord but did you ever try”. You can hang on to your rosary beads and watch me die. I’m a Black man from the ‘ghetto’ and the drugs hit hard in inner city Philly. I went to look in on my friend who was in a treatment facility from time to time, not quite understanding despite all the media surrounding it, just how badly that village is needed, even when the child grows up. The world dismisses you at that point, and rather than reach out to help you, we just pull out the garlic and rosary beads to ward off the evil. He was talking about this unfortunate aspect of society, regardless of race.
2. He wasn’t just influenced by Coltrane and Holiday. He was acknowledging that the world was greatly influenced by these two giants of jazz, and simultaneously sending the message that jazz influenced the music and the lives of all other music, and therefore are at the center of out being. ( Small aside here: One might call Charlie Parker the most talented musician, jazz or otherwise. One might say Miles Davis was the beginning of making jazz commercially viable in its purest form, but the combination of these two jazz perspectives can be seen in God Bless the Child performed by Holiday) and My Favorite Things as performed by John Coltrane).
3. Lastly, the title track was bigger, larger, more significant in scale than just a father breaking down over a job lost. You touched on it some, being a Black man in a white man’s world, but that was the whole message. Raising a family as a Black man in a White man’s world, Providing and protecting, everything important was at the mercy of the White Man, and the letter was just the final straw. This may be what you meant to express, but it reflected the reality that my father’s whole life was predicated on breaks given by a White establishment, as were most Black fathers. Even more importantly, was Mr. Scott-Heron’s point that he, as a son, saw this, thus manifesting the behavior, the reality to be passed down to the next generation. It was critical for a Black father to let his son see him suceed for without that, the son might never want to go home again, falling into the abyss the father so wanted his son to avoid. And now he is off to prison, broken, dooming his children to the same fate in his mind. This is the essence of a broken man.