STEVE WINWOOD — Back in the High Life (review)

STEVE WINWOOD — Back in the High Life album cover Album · 1986 · Pop/Art Song/Folk Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
Steve Winwood impressed millions of his fans with his brilliant do-it-yourself project, “Arc of a Diver,” as the 80s began. He made the mistake of listening to his handlers, though, by rushing through the composing for and production of his follow-up album, “Talking Back to the Night.” That record wasn’t half bad in the technical department but songwriting is not something you can hurry along because you end up cutting corners and settling for what you deem is “good enough.” It was the glaring deficiency in that vital area that doomed and sank that particular frigate. When assessing what went wrong I’m sure that Steve, being the seasoned veteran that he is, learned from that haste-makes-waste misstep and then calmly informed the suits at Island Records the next one might be years in the making. He wasn’t blowing smoke up their chimneys, either. It was almost four years before “Back in the High Life” would hit the shelves and the airwaves but I doubt you’ll find anyone who would say it wasn’t worth the wait. The disc turned out to be one of the monsters of 1986, spawning four popular singles and sitting in the top 10 for weeks on end.

I suspect that Winwood had tired of being the sole jack-of-all-trades for the construction of his art since “Arc” and “Talking” demonstrated without question that he had nothing left to prove about his abilities. It was time to return to the strength-in-numbers approach. He had so many admirers in the biz that getting them to contribute required but a single phone call and that accounts for the presence of industry giants like Chaka Kahn, Nile Rodgers, Randy Brecker, Joe Walsh and James Taylor on various cuts. The sound is immaculate and the performances are top notch as one would expect but, as I inferred earlier, if the foundation isn’t built on great songs the whole multi-roomed mansion is bound to collapse. That’s not a problem on this album and that, more than anything else, is why it was a huge smash. The record clearly lived up to the promise of its prophetic title.

Steve wisely kicks it off with the eye-opening barnburner, “Higher Love.” Crisp Latin percussion leads you into this energetic pop/jazz number that owns an irresistible charm that propelled it straight up to #1. Chaka’s penetrating voice is a perfect compliment to Winwood’s and it’s one of those tunes that doesn’t have a flaw to point out. It also demonstrates how far synthesizer and drum machine programming had advanced throughout the 80s because there’s nothing fake about the power the track possesses in quantity. “Take It as It Comes” is next and its driving rock momentum is beefed up by a real drum kit (as are most of the cuts), this time with Mickey Curry at the helm. A jazzy big band horn section gives the song a classy sheen and the lyrics reveal a bit of personal history. “I’ve played a King/and a down and out fool/some like it hot/some like it cool/do what they want/but don’t be their tool/savor the throne/but don’t mind the stool,” he sings. I also must mention that Steve’s guitar solo is a vast improvement over most in his past. The #20 hit “Freedom Overspill” follows and its proud, struttin’ groove pulls you in immediately. Of note is the exemplary mix of Hammond organ, sassy brass and Joe Walsh’s slide guitar that sits atop Steve Ferrone’s exciting drum explosions. It’s always a treat to witness Steve’s manhandling of his B3 as he does here and his soulful voice is one for the ages.

Winwood was instrumental in creating some of the greatest music of the 20th century but “Back in the High Life” is my all-time favorite of his. It may have peaked at #13 but it’ll always be #1 in my heart. I reckon I’d call this funky folk music with a kick-ass beat yet in actuality it defies labeling. His spirited Mandolin strumming provides the tune with a special atmosphere that sets it apart from everything else from that era and its refusal to conform to current trends is but one of its many assets. Bringing in James Taylor to harmonize was an inspired choice as together they deliver life-affirming lines like “we’ll have ourselves a time/and we’ll dance to the morning sun/and we’ll let the good times come in/and we won’t stop till we’re done.” Considering the dark clouds that were gathering over my head in those days this incredibly uplifting song helped more than any other to get me through some of the stormiest nights of my existence. Speaking of positive messages for a confused world, few contain words as effective as those in “The Finer Things.” The intro’s gorgeous, intertwining synths are invigorating and the song’s Caribbean aura lends the track an engaging bounce. This #8 hit benefits from the lift the background singing of Dan Hartman and James Ingram give to the infectious chorus of “the finer things keep shining through/the way my soul gets lost in you/the finer things I feel in me/the golden dance life could be.” The cavernous bridge section is breathtaking, the arrangement’s inherent dynamics keep it fresh and Steve’s synth ride at the end sparkles like sunlight on water.

“Wake Me Up on Judgment Day,” after its massive, enveloping beginning, turns out to have a hard rockin’ drive that coasts underneath some unusual twists and turns in the tune’s structure. Overall, it’s the runt of the litter because of its lacking a central focus but it’s still better than anything on “Talking Back to the Night” by a mile. I can relate to the look-to-the-future lyrics. “Wake me up on judgment day/let me hear golden trumpets play/give me life where nothing fails/not a dream in a wishing well,” he cries. In terms of rock, though, “Split Decision” does it with balls. Winwood’s room-filling Hammond organ, co-writer Joe Walsh’s gruff but exhilarating guitar work and John Robinson’s fat, killer drums do this tune justice. The “it’s a fine line/a very fine line” chorus sticks in your brain thanks to the memorable female-heavy vocal ensemble and Joe’s solo is a zinger that he, as always, avoids overdoing. The quieter closer, “My Love’s Leavin’,” is an excellent R&B ballad. The legendary Arif Mardin’s synthesizer string arrangement is rapturous and the passionate emotion in Steve’s inimitable voice is heartbreaking. “I cry myself awake each night/I can’t believe it’s true/here am I/where are you?” he pleads. Anyone who’s known that pain can commiserate.

In retrospect the 80s were pretty bleak for me musically so this album shined like a lighthouse in the middle of a brackish ocean and I’m not the only one who felt that way about it. “Back in the High Life” garnered several Grammy awards, including Record of the Year for “Higher Love,” and returned Winwood to his rightful perch as one of the planet’s most respected, revered singer/songwriters. Its success justified the three plus years it took him to put it together so perhaps the disappointing mediocrity of the “hit ‘em while you’re hot” record that came before it served a valuable purpose. This disc has more of a jazzy rather than pop air flowing through it though neither genre dominates. I’ve always treasured it as a record I can rely on to consistently cheer me up when I’m down and, since that’s one of music’s most essential and therapeutic properties, I consider it a must-have.
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