All-Time Albums: #53


STEVE WINWOOD Back In The High Life

Higher Love 5:51 (UK single, #13)
Take It As It Comes 5:24
3 Freedom Overspill 5:37 (UK single, #69)
4 Back In The High Life Again 5:35 (UK single, #53)
5 The Finer Things 5:49 (UK single)
6 Wake Me Up On Judgment Day 5:51
7 Split Decision 6:02
My Love’s Leavin’ 5:21

One of the great things about being young (besides more hair, a slimmer body and plenty of time to realise your dreams) is how your musical tastes can be unencumbered by all that’s gone before with an artist. Especially if they take so long between albums that you’ve actually grown up in the meantime.

So it was in the early summer of 1986, when former Spencer Davis Group frontman, former Traffic leader and former member of rock supergroup Blind Faith returned after a 4-year hiatus. Back In The High Life marked some 22 years of recorded output for the quiet man from the Midlands, yet for all I knew or cared it could have been a debut album. The production from Arif Mardin was crisp, funky and utterly contemporary, Chaka Khan was on backing vocals, the video was as slick and stylish as MTV AOR could get in those days, the song (Higher Love) had a massive chorus and, actually, I assumed this Winwood guy was American. And possibly black.

This album was huge in the States (although not as huge as the follow-up would be), and proved his most durable UK seller as well with some 43 weeks on the chart. Steve Winwood, the solo artiste, had always been albums-oriented in his homeland (all 3 previous LPs went top 20, 2 of them top 10) but that major British hit had eluded him. Higher Love brought him to a new audience, the people who watch TOTP and buy 7″ singles in Woolworths and WH Smiths. The people who buy a NOW album and would instantly know how the song went.

The mid-’80s were full of older rock/pop stars who’d been around a while getting a new lease of life in the video age, courtesy of sharp tunes and even sharper suits (Peter Gabriel, Eric Clapton, Robert Palmer), and Winwood joined that club for a while. The success of Back In The High Life earned him a very lucrative new deal with the fledgling Virgin America label (keen to add a flagship signing to their roster), which worked out well for a couple of years as Roll With It conquered the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988 and 1989. It would, however, be the last of his UK Top 10 albums.

Rather like Daryl Hall, Steve Winwood has a voice so classy and distinctive that it can elevate the most mundane material into something quite special. What separates this album from his others, for me, is the quality of the songs. There isn’t a single duffer in sight, which can’t be said of Talking Back To The Night or even Arc Of A Diver.

On so-so tracks, his plaintive and soul-searching style can drag (which became the problem on 1990’s flop Refugees Of The Heart), but here he swoops and soars and quite clearly relishes the likes of Take It As It Comes, Freedom Overspill, Wake Me Up On Judgement Day and the lovely ballad My Love’s Leavin’ (a proper grown-up song about the aftermath of a failed relationship).

Buying this album on the day of release, when I’d gone into Our Price with the intention of getting True Blue, probably marked the moment I really began to appreciate music in a different way. I still loved pop, still bought singles, but with this LP and Peter Gabriel’s So a month earlier, there was definitely a sea-change.

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