Steve Winwood's new album starts off in quite deceptive fashion.
The opening track, "I'm Not Drowning," is almost an acapella sounding sort of thing, where Winwood's bluesy, almost aching voice — which by the way, sounds better than ever here — is accompanied only by the most minimal, metronomic rimshot percussion, and an equally bluesy sounding guitar.
As I said, it's deceptive.
But only because it doesn't really begin to hint at what is still to come. By the time of the following track — the mellower, but more fully fleshed out "Fly," — it all begins to sound a bit more familiar. The gentle guitars recall nothing so much as Winwood's classic with Blind Faith, "Sea Of Joy." Meanwhile, the arrangement, with flutes and soprano saxes floating in and out of the mix, is — like on older songs like "Back In The High Life" — further in line with his more middle of the road work of the seventies and eighties.
It is at about this point, two songs in, that the deception ends, and the album takes an abrupt left turn into — what's this? — early Santana territory.
On "Raging Sea," Winwood not only cranks the vocal up a few notches, but a more Latin sort of percussion sound first begins to be introduced, along with a heavier Hammond organ that I, for one, thought had went the way of the wah-wah pedal. It is a surprising, but very welcome development, that proves to become even more dominant as this disc progresses.
On the very next track, the standout "Dirty City," that same organ and congas(!) combine for an intro that comes straight out of Santana territory. Or to be more specific, the Santana version of Peter Green's "Black Magic Woman," found on that group's second album, the classic Abraxas. The feel is dark, mysterious, and intoxicating all at the same time.
Familiar? Sure. But only in the best sort of way. Like a dear old friend who has been sorely missed for years – no, make that decades.
By the time of one of the best Eric Clapton guitar solos heard in recent years, you are all but sucked in by it. For anyone who ever spent any time listening to the original late night, freeform FM rock stations of the sixties and early seventies, where the DJs for the most part shut up and let the music — by bands like Santana and Winwood's own Traffic — do the talking, this song will send shivers straight up your spine.
Yes, it's that good.
From there, the jazz/blues/rock vibe of this album just takes on a life of its own. The heavy organ remains front and center for the most part, especially on tracks such as "We're All Looking" and "Hungry Man." Meanwhile, the congas and Latin percussion lays down a rock solid foundation that doesn't so much groove as it does perk. The combination of the Hammond organ swells and the percolating rhythms here are straight out of "Soul Sacrifice" territory – yep! there's that early Santana thing again.
The fact is, in another time and place Nine Lives would be an album rock smash. As it stands, nothing here is going to fit into today's restrictive radio formats — not even something like adult alternative. There's simply nothing here as instantly catchy as say, "Roll With It" was — although "Dirty City" comes damn close. Still, Winwood's voice, which has always been a force unto itself anyway, has never sounded better here.
Evoking the spirits of improvisation that marked his best work in bands like Traffic, this is quite simply, Steve Winwood's best work in years.
God bless him for it.