Used and Improved: Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces of A Man

Every Tuesday, Mills Record Company brings out a feast of used records, and in that feast are more than a few juicy morsels. When TUSEDay features some gems, I try to review them. In the past, I’ve written about Grant Green, Soundtracks, and the Lucifer Rising Suite. Now, I want to look at a record that popped up on the newly arrived used browser: Gil Scott-Heron‘s Pieces Of A Man. The album blends poetry, jazz, soul, drugs, and politics to make an album that is staggeringly relevant.

Beginning with the anthemic and iconic, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Pieces Of A Man minces not what it needs to say. With lines like, “Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and /
Hooterville Junction will no longer be so damned relevant / and Women will not care if Dick finally gets down with / Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people / will be in the street looking for a brighter day,” Gil Scott-Heron accurately describes how the overthrow of racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic policies should happen.

It’s hard to listen to Pieces Of A Man and not find the parallels between the struggles of 1971 and the struggles today. Yet, to look at this album as merely an artistic rendering of political rhetoric is to miss some of Scott-Heron’s instrumental and lyrical complexities. For instance, in the quoted lines above, there’s an intricate patterning of near rhymes (and–damned–women, and no longer–care–brighter, etc.).

There’s also a tension to how Gil Scott-Heron breaks his lines–for example the couplet “…Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people / will be in the street looking for a brighter day,” has a tension to it that is undeniable. The break gets at the idea that struggles for equal rights will finally become more important than the entertainment that bombards us everywhere.

But not all the songs on the album are outwardly political. As brilliant a writer of the political as Gil Scott-Heron is, he is equally powerful at creating intimate scenes. Midway through the album, the title track builds a domestic scene of grief and uncontrollable pain. Truly a great example of the blues form, Gil Scott-Heron teases out the repetitions and instrumental structure of the blues in “Pieces Of A Man” to create a sad story that is incredibly personal while being linked to traditional patterns.

Pieces Of A Man is filled with songs that are formally nuanced and filled with content that bites and tears at every bit of our human insides. Whether it’s Scott-Heron’s mastery of soul jazz arrangements, or his brilliant lyrics, or the mystique that has built itself around this record that entices you, do not sleep on this gem. Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces Of A Man has earned itself a spot in the canon of American music for a reason. Give the album a spin and hear why.

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