Back In The High Life Review: Rolling Stone, July 1986
With 'Back In The High Life,' Steve Winwood has created the first undeniably superb record of an almost decade-long solo career, and the news of its arrival is as momentous as its protracted deferment was disturbing. Indeed, the passion long smoldering in his finest work explodes in the album-opening duet with Chaka Khan, "Higher Love," as Winwood cuts through their lustrous harmony to intone, "I could light the night up with my soul on fire/I could make the sun shine from pure desire!" This kinetic anthem to the sensuality of faith makes good on every one of Winwood's soul-stirring boasts as it rises, breaks and then surges again to a still-loftier crest. Grand stuff – so why the frustrating delay?
From his audacious debut in the Spencer Davis Group, Winwood has starred as an instrumentalist and composer, and his abilities as a distinctively soulful vocalist are legendary. Yet Winwood is either by instinct or habit a loner, a perfectionist who has often seemed embarrassed by the dazzle of his natural talent. His last solo effort, 1982's Talking Back to the Night, suffered from the isolation of a one-man effort and came off as an unnecessary sequel to his near-exquisite 1980 paean to triumph over solitude, Arc of a Diver.
The Prophet 5 electronic-keyboard signatures and other alluring control-room devices that Winwood developed on his solo records are in sparing but effective evidence on Back in the High Life, and he's traded the sterile autonomy of the studio for the give-and-take of a band, a diverse group of players including the guitarists Nile Rodgers and Joe Walsh and the dexterous Quincy Jones session drummer John Robinson. But the real collaboration is with coproducer Russ Titelman, who has carefully framed Winwood's singing in all its reedy-to-radiant brassy splendor. On tracks like "Higher Love," "Take It As It Comes" and "Wake Me Up on Judgment Day," Winwood's phrasing is so sharp he rises far above everything else in Titelman's mix, even the Earth, Wind and Fire-inspired synth-horns.
And just when you think you've got another Phil Collins-like case of Brit soul larceny, these songs slip out along delightfully unanticipated avenues. No track onHigh Life is less than five minutes in length, and each unfolds with deliberate precision. Even the casually synchronized backing harmonies by James Ingram on "The Finer Things" and James Taylor on the title track become springboards for Winwood to jump to the upper reaches of his vocal range, and the shadings he himself provides on keyboards and mandolin deftly advance these vibrant narratives of self-discovery. By the time Winwood's keyboards begin parrying with Joe Walsh's frisky guitar figures on the propulsive "Split Decision," it's plain that the reluctant star has finally found the knack of shining without awkwardness or apology. (RS 478/479)