ARCING UP

Here is the Steve Winwood story in his song lyrics.

At the time of the first solo album in 1977, the tone is one of quiet desperation.

Hold on to me when you’re falling

When you’re falling down to the ground

Hold on to me when you feel like

When you feel like you can’t go on (Hold On)

Fast forward to the dawn of the new decade —Arc of a diver— things are sad, pessimistic. ‘Dust’ tells the story:

Swept up like debris on a Saturday night, did we ever have fun?

Our man hangs in there, neither surrendering nor despairing, even in tough times. He’s ‘Still in the game’ on 1982’s Talking Back To The Night.

Here’s to never letting go

Though sometimes it does get lonely

But the upswing has started and is gathering momentum. Before long he’s Back In The High Life Again (1986).

All the doors I closed one time will open up again

We’ll be back in the high life again

All the eyes that watched us once will smile and take us in

What a difference a decade makes. On Roll with it (1988) we find optimism and confidence a-plenty. It’s there in the lyric of ‘Holding on’, so different from ‘Hold on’ eleven years earlier. Once falling, now standing; once despairing, now certain things are good.

Holding on, now I’m standing in the light

Holding on, and this time I got it right

It’s a wonderful fantasy; a personal journey in song across five albums. Shame it’s total fabrication; Steve Winwood did not write any of those lyrics.

Yet it tells a fascinating story that is hardly at odds with his personal arc. Unhappy marriage that dribbles towards tedious financial wrangling, career slowly revitalised, then a new marriage, family, children.

Let’s begin our tour of Winwood’s solo output.

Steve Winwood Steve Winwood 1977

Steve Winwood [Island 1977]

The debut solo album was reviewed in the previous article, here. Suffice to say, this often overlooked record is pleasingly consistent and entertaining. 7/10

Steve Winwood - Arc of a diver

Arc Of A Diver [Island 1980]

A really solo solo album and the rebirth of Winwood’s career. Somehow this totally self-made album, assembled in his home studio with the only outside input coming from three lyricists (Will Jennings, George Fleming and Viv Stanshall), somehow against all odds this stripped back, synth-based, DIY LP touched the public imagination and became a hit.

When the stately, almost churchy opening synthesiser lines of Top Ten hit ‘While you see a chance’ give way to the upbeat shuffle of the melody, something deeply human reaches out and touches us in a way utterly unexpected for music played predominantly on electronic keyboards. Many of the lyrics are personal, but in a painterly, slightly distanced way. ‘Dust’ could be the legacy of any failed relationship… ‘and the dust you left behind is settling still’, while ‘Second-hand woman’, a story of buying human contact manages to be simultaneously misogynistic and sad. And of course there is the gloriously potty Viv Stanshall lyric to the title track:

But jealous night and all her secret chords

I must be deaf on the telephone

I need my love to translate

A favourite track is ‘Spanish Dancer’ which opens side two of the original LP. The synthesised harpsichord evokes Stevie Wonder while the bubbling background pulse could be from some turn-of-the-decade German electronic album. The key feature of the song is the off-kilter plucked string synth sound. Second engineer ‘Nobby’ Clarke remembers, ‘The master of ‘Spanish Dancer’ is only one minute and 10 seconds long’, indicating how vital the studio had become in Winwood’s music-making.

Here is a lyrical, inventive album full of melody and electronic greenery that creates a transistorised tapestry as abstract and yet as human as the cover art by Tony Wright. Timeless. 9/10

Steve Winwood - Talking Back to the Night

Talking Back To The Night [Island 1982]

It is very odd to read in the Winwood bio that Steve doesn’t think much of Talking Back To The Night. ‘It didn’t sell because it wasn’t really that good.’ [p. 141]. Well, Steve, I beg to differ. Opening song ‘Valerie’ (a hit single when re-mixed five years later) has a great melodic hook and really strong vocals. ‘Big Girls Walk Away’ is, despite it’s silly title, a great piece of Winwood R&B while ‘Still in the game’ has fabulous upbeat energy and sounds exactly like a lost track from the previous album. Elsewhere there are a couple of fine ballads (‘While there’s a candle burning’ and the magnificent closer ‘There’s a river’) and another Arc-worthy contender in the title track. Sure, there are a couple of fillers, but overall this remains one of my favourite Winwood albums, irrespective of the artist’s opinion. Under-rated. 7.5/10

Steve Winwood - Back in the High Life

Back In The High Life [Island 1986]

Wanna hit? Write about lurve in a way that’s NOW! Really wanna hit? Make sure your production paints with the colours of NOW! Really, really wanna hit? Give yourself a complete makeover that visually draws a line between the trendy NOW! and introverted yesteryou.

So that’s tick tick tick for Winwood’s most commercial album so far. The back cover photos drip with arty intimacy, totally in tune with songs like ‘Higher love’, ‘My love’s leavin’’ and ‘Split decision’. Russ Titelman co-produced; it’s sharp, it’s clean, it’s punchy, baby.

It all added up to Winwood’s most successful album, sales-wise. That he toured extensively behind it didn’t hurt either. Want a little more High Life? Rich over at Kamertunes wrote it up recently. This is classy eighties pop that drinks and dances with one hand free. If that’s your bag, you’ll love it. 8/10

Steve Winwood - Roll with it

Roll With It [Virgin 1986]

Dropping his dinner jacket and let’s-watch-the-dawn-together Ferry-osity, Winwood brushed back his hair and went for the handsome moody rocker image for his next solo album. Thought the visuals changed, the music didn’t shift much. We are still in the territory of glossy, radio friendly pop music, all reflective surfaces and sharp focus.

The title track was a single and did brilliantly across North America. The other two singles —‘Holding on’ and ‘Don’t you know what the night can do?’— did pretty darn well too. If Back in the High Life was your introduction to Steve Winwood (and for many people it was), then you probably love Roll With It. Like the decade that spawned it, I find it too glossy and rather shallow. 6.5/10

*

Previously in the apparently endless Steve Winwood feature:

Smiling Phases

High-Heeled Boys

Go Solo Steve

Will there be more? Stay tuned…

20 comments

  1. Great look back at this wonderful artist, Bruce. Been playing ‘Back In The High Life’ of late since picking it back up, for the first time on vinyl, last year. Need to get more of these on 33⅓, come to think about it. 🙂

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    1. They absolutely sound better on vinyl. 🙂

      Glad you’re enjoying the series Michael.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I know I mentioned this before, but Arc Of A Diver is the only Winwood album I own (on vinyl, thanks to my friend Paul Kerr). I hadn’t heard it before … hadn’t heard any of his stuff. This series has been really helpful in highlighting where to jump back in … I’ve spotted Back In The High Life a few times (been sitting in my favourite haunt for a good while now), so reckon I’ll snap it up.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Nothing wrong with a classy piece of pop!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting stuff. According to that great book ‘Are We Still Rolling’ I told you about, you’re spot on – Steve was not a happy camper during the making of the first album. It didn’t help when Chris Blackwell apparently walked in during the first playback and said, ‘Sounds great, Steve. But why don’t you try these songs with a completely different rhythm section?’! Cue frantic phone calls to Willie Weeks and Andy Newmark.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe that’s why he did the entire second album himself!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, definitely. A lot less hassle, and when you’re as good as Steve on guitar, drums and keys, it probably sounds as good anyway.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Great write-up, Bruce, and not just because of the shout-out to my post on “Back In The High Life.” While I don’t agree with Mr. Winwood about “Talking Back To The Night,” I do think it’s a big step back (songwriting-wise) from the superb “Arc Of A Diver.” As you know, I love “High Life” and I don’t think it’s his most commercial effort. That would be “Roll With It,” which sounds to these ears more like “product” than art. I like some of it but he was clearly trying to maintain the career momentum of the previous album. I haven’t played it in years but I have a feeling it won’t hold up as well as most of his other albums.

    I hope you’ll cover more of his solo career. “I Will Be Here” waiting for the next post (an obvious reference to one of my favorite SW songs).

    Cheers!
    Rich

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hard to imagine anything not being a trifle disappointing after Arc of a Diver, but I’ll stand by my liking for Talking Back to the Night. Despite its garish cover I return to it as regularly as anything in his solo career.
      Your comment on commerciality had me rushing to edit mode, Rich. I’d been meaning to imply that it was his most commercial recording to date. That is, in his entire career up to this point. That said, no argument that Roll With It trumps High Life in the commerciality stakes, with less charm and engagement than its predecessor.

      So I should continue with the series, you reckon?

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      1. I hope you see this series to the end. I don’t know all of his later albums as well but your write-up might inspire me to revisit them.

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  5. Bruce, ‘his dinner jacket and let’s-watch-the-dawn-together Ferry-osity’ is perfect!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Song for song Arc of a Diver is still my favorite Winwood album. Great post, thank for taking me down a fun memory lane.

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  7. This 80s run is a hard SW period for me, VC. What I heard then — and what still puts me off from an honest, concerted re-testing of the waters now — was all smoothed surfaces and sanded edges. Luckily, I have no trouble continuing to enjoy the textures in your writing however.

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    1. It is indeed highly polished. What kept me going (and buying) was as much loyalty as particular enjoyment of the later albums. So I have no problem with someone gazing absently out the window for the last couple of stops on this particularly long train ride. To be honest, a different kind of complete-ism is the main force pushing for a last Winwood post. ‘Finish what you begin’ as my old Dad used to say.

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  8. I, probably like many other people of a particular generation, discovered Winwood in reverse: I liked his solo stuff first, then explored the Traffic/Blind Faith years. While I love Arc of A Diver–including that fantastic cover art by Tony Wright–I never owned it. The only solo work of his I owned was Back in The High Life on….cassette! It was in heavy rotation during my medical school years. My roommate and I loved singing along to Higher Love, especially when Chaka Khan chimed in with “*Brang* me a higher love…”

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ah, cassettes. Every home should have a box or two stashed at the back of a wardrobe shelf, just for the nostalgia.

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  10. I had to finish, you know me. Like I said CB is a Winwood guy. Like his work and have stayed with him throughout his career. Good is Good. Just listened to him and Eric at ‘Madison Square’ similar to the Cream reunion. Whew! You did it. Better man than me Bruce but thanks for doing it and nudging me to revisit some of the ones I haven’t listened to in a while. One last thing. It’s about the music for Me and I think you also (throw some covers in there) but does Steve Winwood ever age?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Saw him a couple of years back on a co-show with Steely Dan. Still sounded fine. For Dan’s encore, Winwood came on and sang ‘Pretzel Logic’ at his B3. Sublime.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My hat is off to you Bruce. I bombed you with comments but SW is a CB fave and has so much good music which you tackled so well. You are not a pretender, you love this stuff and it shows. From ‘Keep on Running’, ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ and up on through the guy just keeps doing it. If you haven’t seen the MSG concert it’s worth it. (I peeked ahead at the ‘Crimson’ thing. Another bug chunk of great stuff)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks CB. Vinyl Connection is indeed a labour of love, made worthwhile by the reads and comments of fellow music lovers like yourself. Cheers.

          Liked by 1 person

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