1986, Music

Back in the High Life (1986) by Steve Winwood

Traffic are one of those bands I want to love more than I actually do. They’re one of those bands who might have been All Time great had they just had a great songwriter. There are so many moments in their music that I get really excited about, but then the quality of the songs lets me down a bit. And I suspect that one reason Blind Faith didn’t succeed, in addition to the absurd expectations, is that they also did not have a great songwriter.

Steve Winwood is, in many ways, one of the great British talents of his era, a fantastic singer, seemingly able to play every instrument on the sun, and someone who likes cool music (or at least used to). This is the first solo album of his I’ve heard – after listening to most Traffic albums many times and the Blind Faith record, among other things – so I don’t know when it started to go wrong. (Actually, that’s not entirely true. I tried to listen to Arc of a Diver once but have no memory of it.) But here I find yet another great musical talent of the ’60s or ’70s making adult contemporary pablum in the ’80s. I guess it was just the thing to do.

Even with a co-songwriter, Winwood is not someone you can rely on for a consistently high output. People loved “Higher Love” at the time but how much of that is on Chaka Khan? There were seven singles released from this record and I cannot remember most of them right now.

Do the flurry of guests make things better? One of the cool things about Winwood is that he’s able to do the Paul McCartney one-man-band thing, if he wants to. Do I notice Nile Rodgers or Joe Walsh or James Taylor? Not particularly. Sure, I notice Chaka Khan. I don’t know what was going on with Winwood’s other albums, but I’m not sure the endless number of guests makes any of this better.

But the biggest issue, as is almost always the case with these ’80s albums made by aging rock stars, is the production: contemporary electronic instruments everywhere and a sound that just screams out the year in which it was made. The mandolin on that one song is a genuine surprise, honestly.

Steve Winwood once made music that was exciting and compelling, a mixture of R&B, rock, jazz, folk and some other things that was fresh and distinct. If he was a better songwriter (or one of his bandmates was) Traffic would have been bigger, maybe considered one of the great bands of their era. Instead, older people know Steve Winwood as the lead singer for the Spencer Davis Group and…wait, wasn’t he in a band with Eric Clapton? And (relatively) younger people know him as the “Higher Love” guy. And that makes me sad.


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