Review: Angus MacKinnon, NME Jan 1981
Still a stripling at 32, Steve Winwood emerges once more from the depths of the rural Gloucestershire to offer interested parties his first bona fide solo album.
Its six years since The Spencer Davis Group’s teenage R&B rebel and Blind Faiths reluctant, unprepared superstar hauled a reformed Traffic off the road for good, years in which Winwood has worked quietly and consistently, mostly on albums by fellow Islanders like John Martyn and Marianne Faithfull.
Winwood’s own track record has hitherto been limited to 1977’s ‘Steve Winwood’, a cautious album made with friends and familiars. High hopes that, freed from the pressures of touring and the relative restrictions of a working band, he might begin to exploit his considerable multi- instrumental abilities to the full have somehow been thwarted. Whether hampered by his own perfectionism or over- indulged by Island’s distinctly laissez- faire attitude towards one of their earliest and most valuable signings, Winwood simply hasn’t delivered as many were conceived he would.
Disregarding for a moment Winwood’s achievement in writing, playing, recording and producing every note of ‘Arc Of A Diver’, the album evinces little quantifiable development in the man’s music since ‘Steve Winwood’ or any latter-day Traffic record. It stands in relation to Winwwod in much the same way as ‘Hotter Than July’ stands to his not so distant soul cousin Stevie Wonder; it’s pleasing, generally satisfactory, at times outstanding but basically safe. A no- risk undertaking.
The attractions of ‘Arc of a Diver’ are, however, manifold. Rare in these strange days of vain revolt and regimented gesture and style is the album that has no pretensions to be anything more or less than a collection of songs sweet and (not always quite so) simple.
And what songs – they’re seams from the mother lode, Like Jack Bruce, Winwood is lucky enough to possess not only an innate and incomparable melodic gift but also one of the great white soul voices of his generation. Unlike Brice though, he seems to have difficulty organising his talents. Song structure (or lack of it) is, I’m afraid, something of a problem here.
Take ‘Spanish Dancer’ – a swaying, swirling sort of trance piece that hedges and hovers on layers of bright, mysterious synthesizers and busy sequencers. The song girds itself up for middle- eight, but really just sets its pace, finds its space and stays there. Delighted with the mood he’s evoked, Winwood appears reluctant or unable to do anything with it.
The same goes for ‘Night Train’, another galloping groove in the vein of ‘Time is Running Out’. This is more prime Philadelphia time than four- square disco (an area itself explored with some succession ‘Second- Hand Woman’), and it certainly shifts. The long intro is architecturally perfect, echoplexed guitars and keyboards vaulted over the rhythm track: a breathtaking cathedral of sound. Big splashing piano chords pave the way for Winwood’s vocal, but again the song doesn’t evolve and eventually almost caves in on itself under a spasmodic guitar solo. The momentum and motion are there, but not the management.
‘Slowdown Sundown’, engagingly shambolic at the outset and reminiscent of both the early Band and Ronnie Lane’s work since he left ‘The Faces’, and ‘Dust’, a vulnerable, ruminative ballad with some spry changes, are each pretty much your standard Traffic stash: quintessentially English counterparts to the Americana of ‘Night Train’ or ‘Woman’ or, if you prefer, country to their town. Winwood’s synthesizer orchestrations are sometimes a touch too lavish, and his use of the instrument as a straightforward substitute for harps (cf the Wondrous break on ‘Sundown’), guitars and horns is disappointingly conservative.
But Winwood could sing a Morning Star editorial and still make emotional amends which is just as well since the album’s lyrics, four by Crusaders’ collaborator Will Jennings and two by one George Fleming, are mostly rhyming doggerel of the worst possible kind. Fleming’s lyric to ‘Woman’ is particularly unfortunate, displaying as it does a rank misogyny that ill befits the warmth and compassion inherent in Winwood’s singing. Jennings’ compendium of clichés on ‘While You Still Have A Chance’ is equally appalling, although Winwood somehow manages to electrify such sentiments, placing them in a brisk, breezy setting and declaiming as if his soul depended on it. (Come back, Jim Capaldi, all is forgiven. No on second thoughts don’t bother.)
Unsurprisingly, it’s the album’s best lyric that elicits Winwood’s best music. Viv Stanshall’s title song is splendidly arcane paen to (I think) a musical Muse, rich and wonderfully resonant in its imagery. Winwood rises to the occasion, intuitively sensing and painstakingly emphasising the lyric’s complex metre and allusive meaning in the bold, emphatic mid- tempos that suit him best. This is a superb performance, finely wrought and beautifully achieved, one that relegates the rest of the album to secondary status. Stanshall’s writing obviously challenges Winwood, and that’s a situation he should thrive in more often. The combination is winning, just as it was on ‘Dream Gerrard’ and ‘Vacant Chair’. Please repeat at the earliest possible convenience.
Steve Winwood’s place in popular music is assured, but these three- yearly, broadcast are not enough to maintain his reputation intact. Either we expect too much of the Winwoods and Wonders or we over- estimate them – whichever, both musicians seem destined to remain tantalising under- achievers. I hope Winwood makes me eat my words. Please pass the salt and sauce.