Album Review: Lee 'Scratch' Perry - Heaven
by Steve Topple
In what is now the final album release from the late Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, he’s left the world with a cemented legacy of infinite genius and wisdom; a fitting tribute to one of the greatest musicians to ever have lived.
Heaven, released via Burning Sounds and Secret Records, was recorded with ERM – the band Perry was working with most in his later years. Written and produced by Perry and Olivier Gangloff, the release sees eight tracks brought to life – all in Perry’s indomitable style, and notably available across a 180g vinyl, among other formats.
The title track opens the album in a particularly meandering yet evocative way – and pertinent, given the context of the album. It’s a delicate, smooth, Roots affair – with the focus being very much on a stripped-back rhythm section, performing classic Roots musical devices, accompanied by a winding, shrill electric organ from Michel Latour Romain and some pointed percussion from Perry himself and Gangloff. Perry takes his lyrical inspiration from the Christian Lord’s Prayer – but has embellished it well to apply to Rastafari. It’s a strong opening and sets the tone of the album well.
Good News then changes tack, with its forthright horn section from Cedric ‘Tribuman’ Munsch, Pascal Beck, and Romain ‘Romux’ Pivard leading an evocative charge of upbeat Roots sounds – including pattering bongos – amid a dark and brooding minor key backdrop. There are some soulful backing vocals, centring around vowel sound harmonisations – and the briefest of flits into Dub, with a haunting bridge. But all this then crashes to the background, as a gorgeous electric guitar from Sebastien Kohler takes centre stage across a well-executed solo bridge. Perry is on point, here, discussing spiritual faith from the viewpoint of someone with it – and overall, the track is powerful and beautifully arranged.
Then, Shut Up smashes what came before it – taking Heaven back to an Old Skool Dancehall sound, complete with the root-to-seventh chord progression and upbeat BPM. However, this is Perry – and Dub is aplenty across the sonic engineering and choice of synths. However, it’s his vocal which is particularly pleasing here, as he swerves between delicate spoken word, something nearer a singjay, and at points even a growling cry. Perry’s narrative about denouncing his detractors is well-constructed, leaving Shut Up a smart, throwback affair.
Baby Elephant continues the sonic vibes – completed with a child’s voice sample – but the pace of things is wound back again to some slowed down, Ambient Roots. Gaetan Miloch’s percussion is particularly stirring, and the use of synths here is mesmerising, including ethereal strings compounded by the heavy engineering, notably the elongated reverb. Perry’s thoughtful performance – filled with dynamic light and shade – is perfect for the narrative he’s created, as he muses on the African diaspora and how, still to this day, emancipation has yet to be properly achieved. Strong works – and another poignant track for Perry’s final release.
Next, and Peace is a well-timed and effective track. The merging of something Soul with Roots here is strong – from the interesting melodic chord progressions juxtaposed with the relentless bubble rhythm, to the use of guitars and an electric organ juxtaposed with pattering, almost Nyabinghi, drums. The horns finish the track off brilliantly, as does a fluid Dub bridge and its accompanying breaks. Perry, musing on the state of the world but also giving us an introspective look at personal inner peace, is at his reflective best here, and the track is moving and thought-provoking.
God Smile furthers Heaven’s sound – keeping the rudimental Roots features in place, while upping the Dub once more. It’s stripped-back beauty is compounded by the heavy reliance on some startling synths and samples, perhaps being the most sonic cut of the album – with Anne Foesser’s backing vocals fitting into this perfectly. Perry wanders around the track with purpose but allowing the music to do the heavy lifting, while still delivering a sermon which serves as a follow-up to Peace – reflecting on how inner peace is centred around faith in Jah/God and how everything else then follows.
Shining sees Perry et al. move back towards a heavier, more intricate Roots sound – once again with a strong horn section, and some brilliant drums from Gangloff. Of course, the track uses an interpolation of Bob Marley’s Sun Is Shining – and to very good effect, as Perry toys with it, teasing us in the process. He’s again highly introspective, here, reflecting on his life at the time and how he’d gotten to that point – and ultimately giving thanks for it.
Heaven closes with Repented. It’s unclear whether this was the last track that was recorded, or whether the label chose to put it last – but either way, it’s the perfect, poignant closing to the project. There’s something highly unsettling and foreboding about the overall arrangement – as an electric guitar calmly lilts, but is constantly interrupted by unnerving, aggressive synths. These juxtapositions are then compounded further on, as a rasping guitar comes in and improvising horns create chaos – but still with this calm yet relentless musical backdrop. The off-key guitar at the end, coupled with the final few notes and samples fading into the ether, finish this off perfectly.
The point being, the track feels almost like an aural manifestation of the feelings someone gets just before they die – and with Perry’s accompanying lyrics, reflecting on himself and his life (for the good and for the bad), it’s hard to not think of it as his final musical breath on this earth, before passing. With that in mind, Repented takes on a sudden, moving meaning – dragging you into its emotional maelstrom and refusing to let go. It’s perhaps the most inspired track of the album and serves as a fitting final roll of the dice for Perry.
Overall, Heaven is a sterling piece of work from Perry, ERM, and all involved. On first listen, it feels like classic Perry – with heavy reliance on engineering, synths, and samples to create an otherworldly sound that’s still grounded in our own, and in Roots. But on closer inspection, Heaven does feel like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s final breaths before he departed us – and on that basis, it’s a moving and heart-wrenching experience. A classic, and an appropriate self-epitaph to this legendary artist.
Lee 'Scratch' Perry - Heaven
CD / VINYL / DIGITAL RELEASE [Burning Sounds]
Release date: 10/27/2023
02. Good News
03. Shut Up
04. Baby Elephant
06. God Smile
09. Shining Dub
10. Shut Up Dub