Sound: Throughout his 40-year-plus career, Steve Winwood has learned to reinvent himself. Sure, he's not doing it quite as blatantly as Madonna, but you've got to give the man credit for adapting with the times. He's covered jazz-based rock with Traffic, a bluesier take on the genre with Blind Faith, and in the '80s struck it big as a Top 40 staple. So what does Winwood do in 2008? He gathers a bit of all of those past experiences and works it into a competent and musically diverse album called Nine Lives.
With some help from former bandmate Eric Clapton and the fairly new addition of Paul Booth, Winwood delivers an album that jazz and blues lovers should eat up. It's heavy on solo work, with several songs clocking in at around the 7-minute mark. There might be a few tracks on the album that are reminiscent of Winwood's older work, but all in all this is a completely new venture for the veteran musician. And regardless if you like the end result, Winwood deserves credit for playing so many key instruments throughout.
The huge variety of songs on Nine Lives definitely is an indication of just how many phases Winwood has been through during his career. Raging Sea has almost a blues-funk feel, but in the chorus goes in a completely different direction with more of a laid-back feel. We're All Looking features some incredible Hammond organ work and an even more impressive stripped-down guitar solo performed by Winwood. Fly is the one track that closest resembles his work in the 80s, and at times sounds a bit like Back In The High Life Again.
The multi-instrumentalist has some solid backing as well, and it's actually not Clapton that makes the biggest impression. Clapton does deliver his usual cool, bluesy solo in Dirty City, but players like Paul Booth (Irish whistle, sax) and Karl Vanden Bossche (percussion) make a much bigger impression. There's a strong Latin vibe to the rhythm on songs like We're All Looking, and it takes Winwood's music in a truly new direction. At times the emphasis on instrumentation can cause the songs to drag out longer than they need to (Winwood repeating the say lyrics over and over doesn't help), but you still have to appreciate Winwood giving the spotlight to so many different musicians. // 8
Lyrics: There is a good mixture of themes on Nine Lives, but a few songs definitely stick out for their storytelling aspect. The first single Dirty City definitely creates a mood with lyrics like, The gangster came to see my boy; When I was working nights to pay one more bill; He promised the kid a sweeter life; Said, 'Gotta understand it's dog eat dog out there.' Not every song is that colorful, but Winwood and the various co-writers do a decent job of injecting each song with a little something unique. // 9
Overall Impression: If you weren't a fan of Winwood in the '80s, I don't necessarily blame you. The heavily produced, Top-40-singles that he delivered were straightforward soft rock and a far cry from his days in Blind Faith. While Nine Lives isn't as rock-oriented as Traffic or Blind Faith, Winwood obviously isn't trying to please radio stations with his 7-minute songs. While the songs aren't jazz, they do have a similar feel, with each member of the band basically getting a solo. It's not a flawless CD and songs do tend to go on a bit long even when there are no solos to be found, but Winwood deserves credit for dabbling in everything from the Delta Blues to Latin Rock. // 8