It’s always refreshing to see a long-established rock star with nothing left to prove actually act that way and just follow his muse. Former Spencer Davis group whiz-kid and Traffic progenitor Steve Winwood did just that five years ago when he forsake slick production and compact, radio-friendly ditties for the earth-bound soulful jams of About Time.
Like 2003’s About Time, Winwood churns out another collection of organic, blues-y r&b rock, and seems unconcerned at the length they clock in at; he’s clearly still in a jam mode. There are two main differences, though: Nine Lives is less jazzier and also contains Winwood’s best batch of songs since … maybe ever.
“I’m Not Drowning” opens the album with a surprisingly stripped down but effective backwood blues. “Raging Sea” boasts an knockout funky riff that should have been invented years ago.
“Dirty City,” which features former Blind Faith bandmate Eric Clapton on guitar, actually lives up its superstar billing. On this gruff blues-rocker, Winwood is playing a filthy-sounding Strat and the brief solo is unmistakenly the same guy who once played guitar for Cream. “Hungry Man” shows Winwood’s substantial Latin side and suggests what “Higher Love” might have sounded like without eighties production values.
The album cover shows Winwood holding a guitar but no matter how much he tries to highlight his multi-instrumentalism, it’s his organ work that stands out. He always had a knack for knowing just when to underpin the melody and when to swell it up at the precise right times. The longer, freer-flowing songs brings that out better than at any time since his Traffic days. His voice remains in fine form, too.
It might sound overly effusive to state this, but there really isn’t any hint of filler on the entire record. The multi-talented Winwood put all those talents to fore on Nine Lives and that’s enough to make this a tough album to top by any other rock act this year.