THE POP LIFE; STEVE WINWOOD RETURNS TO MAKE THE JUICES FLOW
New York Times July 23, 1986
By Jon Pareles
Every few years, a little more frequently than sunspot cycles, the British keyboardist-singer Steve Winwood releases an album of buoyant pop songs and a single that promptly zips into the top 10. He has done that once again with his current single, ''Higher Love,'' and his new album, ''Back in the High Life'' (Island). He is also planning his first American tour in a decade, which will bring him to Jones Beach on Aug. 31 and to New York's Pier 84 on Sept. 12 and 13. ''I'm a slow worker,'' Mr. Winwood said with a shrug. ''I'm trying to step up production, but I think you've got to do it till it's good, and there's no point in just throwing a record out there. I guess I'm fortunate that I've developed my career so I can afford that luxury.'' Mr. Winwood, who is 38 years old, has been singing and writing hit singles since the mid-1960's, when he was the teen-age belter for the Spencer Davis Group. From 1967 to the mid-1970's, he was with the eclectic band Traffic, and during one of Traffic's breakups, he worked with the guitarist Eric Clapton in the group Blind Faith. After Traffic's dissolution, he started a leisurely solo career, releasing albums in 1977, 1980 and 1982. While making ''Back in the High Life,'' Mr. Winwood also had another studio booked, where he completed a soundtrack for a Granada Television documentary on the cyclist Robert Miller.
For ''Back in the High Life,'' Mr. Winwood shifted his modus operandi. He made his other 1980's albums as solo projects, layering on instruments and voices at a studio on his farm in Gloucester, England. But about a year ago he moved to New York City and started recording with other musicians and a co-producer, Russ Titleman. ''I found that with the advance of technology in music,'' Mr. Winwood said, ''I was spending my whole time sitting in front of computer terminals rather than writing, singing and playing. I thought I should work with people who specialize in programming and computer engineering. ''Also, I wanted to get out of the country situation of working alone,'' he said. ''I wanted to get in the city and get the juices flowing. When I'm in England, I miss America.'' Where ''Arc of a Diver'' (1980) and ''Talking Back to the Night'' (1982) both have a dreamy, floating quality, ''Back in the High Life'' digs into down-to-earth dance grooves, laced with 1960's soul horns and 1980's Latin touches. ''Basically, the music doesn't change,'' Mr. Winwood said. ''The presentation of it changes, the way it's marketed changes, and it's probably a little better technically done, but it always returns to what it basically is - simple rock-and-roll or R-and-B. It's like the internal combustion engine, which is still the same as it was in 1905 - it's just refined and it goes a lot better.'' ''With Traffic, we sat down and decided we were going to combine a lot of styles, deliberately, in a calculated way,'' Mr. Winwood said. ''That was the purpose of the band. But now that seems to happen without trying, that mixture of Caribbean and folk and country and jazz and classical and R-and-B. I sit down and write a song, and that's the way it comes out.'' Unlike most pop hit makers, Mr. Winwood and his lyricists (primarily Will Jennings and Vivian Stanshall) don't write typical come-ons or love songs. Such singles as the 1980 ''When You See a Chance'' or the current ''Higher Love'' offer quasi-inspirational messages that could almost turn into hymns. ''I can't really explain why,'' Mr. Winwood said. ''People say they find it refreshing that I don't try to tell men how to behave with women or women how to behave with men. I suppose, maybe, that's because I don't know myself.'