Retro Review: Steve Winwood – Back in the High Life (1986)

Paul Rodgers (Bad Company), Freddie Mercury (Queen) and Steve Winwood are easily three of the most recognizable voices in classic rock. As a teen Winwood had hits with The Spencer Davis Group. After that, with Traffic, Blind Faith (with Eric Clapton) before returning to Traffic. Eventually, becoming a wildly successful solo artist.

Suffice it to say, Steve Winwood casts a long shadow on classic rock.

Having grown tired of the record, tour, record, tour grind Steve Winwood “retired” from music. For a little bit anyway. In 1977, he released his self-titled solo album in 1977. Then in 1980, he released the top 5 Arc of a Diver, which contained his first solo hit “While You See A Chance”. Followed in 1982 by Taking Back the Night, containing the hit “Valerie”.

Four years later Steve Winwood resurfaced with the mega-smash Back in the High Life. While not as warm sounding as his preceding solo albums, Back in the High Life was wildly more successful. Enlisting a who’s who of music, including Chaka Khan, James Taylor, Joe Walsh and Niles Rodgers, Back in the High Life sold millions of copies, spawned four hit singles and won a couple of Grammy Awards. Impressive.

Reviewers, and many others, called it a “comeback”. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. It probably just took that long to record it. To quote LL Cool J “Don’t call it a comeback . . . I’ve been here for years . . . I’m rocking my peers”. Indeed.

How does the album sound now?

Well, Back in the High Life certainly captures the auditory zeitgeist of the mid 80’s. It’s got drum machines, BIG drum sounds, keyboards, layered guitars, horns and loads and loads of backing vocals, etc. All of which were de rigueur back then.

Easily one of the most identifiable intros in rock, the album opens with the steel drum (or drum machine) sounds of “Higher Love” (the #1 hit with Chaka Khan). From there the albums slides from well-crafted mediocre song to well-crafted mediocre song. Every song, after a lengthy five minutes, eventually fades out.

You’ll recognize a number of the songs from Back in the High Life if you’ve ever been to the dentist.

While long, most of the songs were written (quite well) by Steve Winwood and Will Jennings. Musically, the album is equally as solid. But, with the number of top-notch musicians playing on it (only outdone by the 7,224 musicians who make up the world’s largest orchestra) I would expect as much.

Winwood’s voice is the same as it always is, perfect. Everything here sounds so perfect. Too perfect. But, the same could be said of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” (although taken as a whole So is the better album).

The album was produced by Winwood and Russ Titelman, and an astonishing 17 assistant engineers. The best way to describe the sound is that it sounds sterile & clean . . . to the point of impotency.

Between Winwood, Titelman, the 17 assistant engineers(!) and the bagillion musicians I think they incorporated every thing, and thought, imaginable to craft Back in the High Life. They may have even used a kitchen sink (drummer John Robinson is quite talented).

Yet despite all the talent and effort that went into making the album, as I listen to it now, everything just sounds, and feels, gratuitous and empty to me.

However, I can say this about Back in the High Life , it doesn’t have the more overblown and antiseptic sound of Winwood’s insufferable (yet, just as popular) follow up, Roll With It.

All the elements are contained on Back in the High Life, the songs, the vocals, the musicians, the production, the engineers(!). And while it sounds very “of the moment”, that ultimately works against it.

To be fair, many popular artists from this period suffer that same “of the moment” sound. Trust me, Bob Seger is never gonna play “Shakedown”, from Beverly Hills Cop II, live.

Steve Winwood’s Back in the High Life is the perfect example of mid 80’s superfluous sounding album rock. So, if you like that stuff, you’d have to dive into hair metal to find something better(?).

Technically, there is nothing wrong with Back in the High Life, it just lacks heart and, ultimately, soul. And that flies in the face of logic with a singer as good as Steve Winwood. By way of comparison, just listen to “Glad/Freedom Rider” from 1970’s John Barleycorn Must Die by Traffic.

To make a soulless album with Steve Winwood is no easy task. But as his mid to late 80’s output indicates, it’s not impossible.

With an artist like Winwood, Back in the High Life’s ultimate lack of heart and soul is the albums biggest mistake . . . and its biggest crime.


A version of this was published on on February 26, 2019