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 [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
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
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
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
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:
Will there be more? Stay tuned…