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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
Still, he hasn’t been immune to trends – especially during the ‘80s. The swan song of corporate rock seduced even the most strong-willed of rock’s founding fathers, luring them out to sea with promises of continued relevancy and riches, only to leave them gasping for breath in the cutout bins, their names attached to horrible dreck like Bob Dylan’s Down in the Groove or Clapton’s Behind the Sun. Winwood suffered the misfortune of assembling a beautiful mid-‘80s solo record (1986’s Back in the High Life) with serious yuppie appeal; the resultant sales explosion sent him wandering off in search of more and bigger hits for over a decade, via increasingly dull solo albums such as 1990’s Refugees of the Heart and 1997’s dreadful, Narada Michael Walden-produced Junction Seven. By the turn of the century, a new Winwood record was the furthest thing from most people’s minds – which is probably just the way he likes it.
Solid as most of Winwood’s solo output has been, many longtime fans never stopped hoping for a return to the organ-heavy, jam-friendly sounds of his early sides with the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic, and those hopes finally paid off with 2003’s About Time, which found Winwood making a 180-degree turn away from the well-groomed balladry of his most recent releases and toward longer, looser, and more complex rock & roll. The move paid off – although About Time was independently released on Winwood’s own Wincraft label, the album enjoyed a higher profile than anything he’d released in years, and earned him some of the most positive reviews of his solo career – as well as expanding (and reducing the average age of) his audience.
It should come as no surprise, then, that About Time’s follow-up has been brewed from essentially the same ingredients. After years of focusing more on pop songcraft than flexing his musical muscles, Winwood has rediscovered the art of the jam, and he sounds like he’s having the time of his career.
Of course, this being a Winwood album, fans would do well not to expect too much in the way of in-your-face hooks or driving tempos; Nine Lives is relaxed and subtle to a fault, and tracks like “Fly” have more to do with mellow Traffic cuts like “Hidden Treasure” – or even the Dave Matthews Band – than, say, “Gimme Some Lovin’.” Of course, the Dave Matthews Band doesn’t have Winwood playing the organ, or gracing its songs with his ageless pipes, and they certainly don’t have Clapton popping in for a spell to lay down some smoldering guitar on “Dirty City.” In other words, while these songs might not necessarily rush out to greet you, they certainly prove themselves worthy company once you’ve had them around for a while. The occasional radio smash notwithstanding, Winwood’s never really been one to make the most obvious choice, and Nine Lives fits right in – though clearly a jam-based album, it never ventures too far from the rails, and while only one song dips below the five-minute mark, each of the tracks feel like their arrangements were carefully whittled close to the bone before being committed to tape. (Or hard drive. Whatever.)
Given the length and breadth of Steve Winwood’s career, Nine Lives is bound to invite comparisons, and not all of them will be favorable. Still, there’s no escaping the fact that, a few weeks shy of his 60th birthday, Winwood is playing at or near the top of his game. We should all be so lucky.