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Retro-Review: Steve Winwood - Back in the High Life (1986)

Keith Higgons

Posted on February 26, 2019 09:06

1 user

Before Steve Perry was "the voice" there was the other Steve, Steve Winwood.

Steve Winwood, Paul Rodgers (Bad Company) and Freddie Mercury (Queen) are easily three of the most recognizable voices in rock & roll. Winwood, with The Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, Blind Faith (with Eric Clapton) and finally as a solo artist, casts a long shadow on classic rock.

After a failed “retirement” he released his first solo album in 1977, followed by Arc of a Diver in 1980 and Taking Back the Night in 1982.

Four years later, Winwood released Back in the High Life. Reviewers called it a "comeback". It really wasn’t. It probably just took four years to record the album. To quote LL Cool J "Don't call it a comeback . . . I've been here for years . . . I'm rocking my peers". 

Enlisting a who’s who of music, including Chaka Khan, James Taylor, Joe Walsh and Niles Rodgers, Back in the High Life spawned four hit singles and won a couple of Grammy Awards for the #1 hit “Higher Love”.

Impressive to be sure . . . but how does the album sound now?

Back in the High Life certainly captures the sound of the mid 80’s. It's got drum machines, BIG drum sounds, keyboards, layered guitars, horns and loads of backing vocals, etc. All of which were de rigueur back then. I think they incorporated every instrument, and/or sound, imaginable (maybe even a kitchen sink), to craft the album.

It opens with what is easily one of the most recognizable intros in music, “Higher Love” (the #1 hit with Chaka Khan). From there, the album slips from well-crafted mediocre song to well-crafted mediocre song. Every song fades out well after five minutes (that’s long).

If you’ve ever been to a dentist, you’ve heard these songs.  

While long, the songs are well written (mostly by Winwood and Will Jennings) and the musicians are all top notch. The number of musicians on this album rivals the 7,224 musicians who make up the world’s largest orchestra. Not really, but it's a lot.

Winwood’s voice is the same as it always is: perfect. It’s just everything else sounds so too perfect. And in hindsight, dated. To be fair, the same could be said of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" (although So is arguably a much better album).

Produced by Winwood and Russ Titelman, and an astonishing 17 assistant engineers. The best way to describe the sound would be sterile & clean . . . to the point of impotency.

It’s just . . . too perfect.

On the plus side of Back in the High Life, it doesn’t have the more overblown sound of Winwood’s insufferable follow up, Roll With It.

All the elements are present in Back in the High Life, the songs, the vocals, the musicians, the production, the engineers(!) and yet it just sounds like the perfect example of mid 80's gratuitous album rock. If you like that sound, you can do no better.

Technically, there is nothing wrong with Back in the High Life, it just lacks heart and, ultimately, soul.

And that is its biggest mistake . . . and fault.

Keith Higgons

Posted on February 26, 2019 09:06

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(CBS11) – What can one say about Steve Winwood? As for me, a talented and versatile musician who could manage the volatility...

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