It’s great to see an old time legend back in business. While inheritors of the blues-rock mantle (John Mayer, John Butler) wield their musical sabres, it is artists like Steve Winwood who are the crowning glory of rock ‘n roll sovereignty.
So, Winwood returns with eagerly awaited ‘Nine Lives’, his first studio LP since 2003’s acclaimed ‘About Time’. Strangely, the album begins on the back-foot. On ‘I’m not drowning’ Winwood’s rough, aching voice punctuates a circular, metronomic rim-shot beat, with a simple bluesy guitar riff accompaniment.
Following the subdued intro is ‘Fly’, which glides through the air with wistful guitar hooks, propelled by his unmistakably earthy voice. Soaring sax melodies breeze in and out of the breath-light mix, adding to the almost intangible, elemental force.
There is a breadth to the album which invokes the spectre of the sixties and seventies. The colour washes of Winwood’s Hammond organ never sound dated and give the tracks a warm, psychedelic impression. ‘Hungry Man’ and ‘Secrets’ clearly have evolved from the eye of group jams. Often Winwood will let his band flow with fluid abandon, using his voice to stir up the groove. There is a rousing collaboration between Winwood and Eric Clapton on the dystopic ‘Dirty City’. During the outro there is a conflux between Clapton’s molten lava solo and Winwood’s cascade of red hot organ.
What makes the album special are the jazzy subtleties hidden within the diverse palette of the album. It takes a few spins of the album to truly appreciate the genius of the secreted jazz delicacies.‘At Times We Do Forget’ and ‘Hungry Man’ showcase the understated talent of jazz guitarist Jose Pires de Almeida Neto, who’s controlled but lyrical voice glides with a butterfly-winged elegance.
Winwood’s ability to harness various post-jazz styles whilst remaining consistent makes for a rewarding listen. A warm welcome back for one of rock-histories greats!