Sunday, June 26, 2016

Steve Winwood's Return to the High Life

Sometime in June 1986, Steve Winwood released his "Back in the High Life" album — and for awhile there in the summer of 1986, the radio airwaves were a battleground between Winwood and the singles from Peter Gabriel's "So" album.

That was a battle that Winwood eventually won with his hit single "Higher Love" winning Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards. Chaka Khan, who was probably a decade or more removed from her signature hit, "Tell Me Something Good," provided background vocals.

It was a good song, probably representative of the kind of music one tended to hear on the radio in the '80s. I thought it was good — but not great.

Which made the response from the music media somewhat baffling. Rolling Stone called it "the first undeniably superb record of an almost decade–long solo career." Seems to me that is a matter of opinion. Winwood did reasonably well with his previous solo albums, but it must have been hard to establish himself as a solo talent after a career playing with so many of the greats of popular music.

He did finally break through with "Back in the High Life."

Karyn Albano, in an online review, proclaimed "Back in the High Life" Album of the Year — although the Grammys reserved that designation for Paul Simon's "Graceland" album.

Albano wrote that Winwood had managed to combine songs that would "stand the test of time" with the commercial demands of the day. She must have had "The Finer Things," another single that cracked the Top 10, in mind when she wrote that.

Of course, it is hard to deny that Winwood found his musical niche with "Back in the High Life" and used his formula for success in his "Roll With It" album a few years later.

It just had that feel to it, you know? I have my doubts whether it will stand the test of time, but I know people who will tell you, 30 years later, that "The Finer Things" is their favorite Winwood song of all time.

It was nearly the most successful single on "Back in the High Life," and it had that same pop/rhythm and blues appeal that served Winwood so well on "Roll With It."

The more–or–less title track from the album, "Back in the High Life Again," was the third–most successful single from the album, reaching #13 on the charts — and hit #1 on the Adult Contemporary charts for awhile.

I always liked it, maybe the best of the Winwood singles that filled the airwaves that summer.

I don't know why that is. Perhaps it appeals to that desire we all have to show those who wrote us off in the past.

Plus it had James Taylor singing background vocals, and that's pretty hard to beat.

The fourth most–successful single on the album, "Freedom Overspill," seems like it ought to be applicable to someone's political campaign. It seemed that way to me at the time, but no one, to my knowledge, has used it in the last 30 years.

I always liked "Split Decision," too, which had Joe Walsh on slide guitar.

In general, "Back in the High Life" was kind of inspiration in the era of "Revenge of the Nerds," a series of movies about how a group of abused nerds got their revenge against the popular people on their college campus.

It was all in that "So how do you like me now?" frame of mind — a mindset to which most people can relate, I am sure.