At those periodic times when Steve Winwood's resolutely private muse has intersected with the public domainsuch as last year, when he hit the Top Forty with the buoyant "While You See a Chance" it's seemed almost a fortuitous accident, a quirky twist of fate. The reason is that Winwood generally sounds too much the loner to elbow his way forward in the crowded push and shove of rock & roll's noisy arcades. His is the high, lonesome voice rising through the mists of his native British midlandsnot the sort of gregarious chit-chat that scans well in today's bleached-out formats. Until now, that is: Talking Back to the Night, Winwood's third solo LP, finds the artist's restless muse at a temporary standstill, peeping its head out occasionally from what is for the most part a bland, easy-listening electropop rut. And though it's not fecklessly commercial, the new LP may do quite well. It's got a nicely textured sheen to it, it bops along at a comfortable stride, and it sounds perfectly unambitious.
Which is not to say that Talking Back to the Night is a precipitous fall from grace for Winwood; it is, however, disappointing to hear him do anything less than shoot for the moon. One was tempted to believe that Winwood had an inexhaustible store of ideas hidden away somewhere, that he was incapable of being boring, but there is a disconcerting sameness to much of the material here. He'll find a harmless groove a Doobie Brothers-style shuffle with synthesizers and keyboards marching in cheery lockstep alongside wishy-washy percussionand wear it out. Such are the hazards of being a one-man band: when inspiration runs high, no one does it better than he, but when it's running low, there's no one around to rub ideas off of and get a new spark going.
The album does have its exceptional moments. Mostly, they are musical. "Valerie" opens up side one on an upbeat note, a burbling synthesizer keeping a steady pulse while Winwood gives his majestic voice a fine workout, echoing and underscoring himself on keyboards. On "Big Girls Walk Away," his lead vocal is trailed by a halo of treated voices to interesting effect. In both songs, the singer reaches for the improbable note or phrasing, taking them one step beyond pop. Getting the most from the least is Winwood's genius; here, as in his best work, his musical tableaux are free of clutter, and each note or beat resonates in light of the surrounding information.
In these cases, Winwood has composed fine music for what are basically dull lyrics (penned by Will Jennings, who wrote all of the words on Talking Back to the Night). "Valerie" marks the first time Winwood has sung a song titled after a girl's namealways a bad sign and it's unsettling to hear such pedestrian lines as "Valerie, come and see me/I'm the same boy I used to be" emanating from his exquisite throat. Worse is "Happiness," which recounts in geographical detail the golden moments of a couple's sylvan courtship, from Paris to London to Carmel, California.
It's apparent that Winwood rises to the challenge of his lyricists and sinks with their mediocrity. Thus, "And I Go," a rather nondescript love paean, is matched by a treacly, sentimental tune not far from Bread's "Baby, I'm-a Want You." Only on "Talking Back to the Night," a brooding number in which busy keyboards churn around a moody Winwood vocal, do they capture some of the dark mystery that is Winwood's hallmark. And only here does Winwood's voice truly break free and soar.
Winwood has always been the contemplative type, given to long, pensive moments and pregnant pauses. But on Talking Back to the Night, his metaphysical daydreaming has turned to yawning, as with "There's a River," the stillborn hymn of wonder that closes the album. Though its well-meaning lyricscosmic vagaries about the river that carries the heart back home and Winwood's stately "Amazing Grace"-style music intend to mount to a sublime inspirational crescendo, the song instead arrives at a soporific dead end.
Yes, there's a river all right. But where does it go? Unfortunately, it just meanders on Talking Back to the Night. And while it's okay for an artist of his caliber to paddle about in the shallows on occasion, one fervently hopes that Steve Winwood charts a course for deeper waters next time out. (RS 377)
(Posted: Sep 2, 1982)
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