April 25th, 2008
By Doug Collette
Steve Winwood has had a most successful solo career for over a quarter century, beginning in 1981 with Arc of A Diver through 2003's About Time. Yet no album has so accurately reflected his versatile talents or vividly echoed the pinnacles of his past as Nine Lives.
Traffic's John Barleycorn Must Die and The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys come to mind at the first sounds of the initial track, "I'm Not Drowning," where bluesy acoustic guitar, congas and timbales surround the effortless soul of Steve's voice. On "Fly"--an ode to optimism if there ever was one--the haunting sound of flute (which reappears on the penultimate track, "Raging Sea," to impart a sense of logic to the album) follows sweet strains of harmonica and grand swells of Hammond B3 organ.
The appearance of Eric Clapton's fiery guitar on "Dirty City" adds an ominous air appropriate to the song's title. At the same time, Slowhand's sound disrupts the homogeneity threatening the album at that point, even as his presence also injects a positive tension to keep the band cooking.
A distinctly balmy air otherwise permeates the music here, an atmosphere that turns positively tropical on "Hungry Man," during which horns float on the reggae-tinged rhythm above fluid electric rhythm and lead guitar. When the level of intensity rises, approximately a minute before that track closes, "Secrets" then achieves a most appropriate transition: its easy rolling rhythm fortifies the structure of the song.
"Other Shore" is the most personal tune on the album, its one-to-one message referencing the passage of time and geography. Steve might well have played some electric guitar himself in the time allotted a saxophone solo in the middle of the track: the horn sounds simply too conventional for its own good, reminding that this man has made some decidedly commercial concessions in the past.
Yet the bulk of Nine Lives, by contrast, is a fresh and invigorating rediscovery of Winwood's roots and his personal style that, like his recent concert collaborations with Clapton, bodes well for his continued vitality.