Steve Winwood turned 32 in 1980, a grand old man by rock and roll standards. He was already a veteran, having played with the Spencer Davis Group, Blind Faith and perhaps most notably, Traffic, but a 1977 solo debut failed to yield significant commercial gains. “I suppose I’ve always been a band leader, rather than a virtuoso like [Blind Faith bandmate] Eric Clapton,” Winwood once mused. So it might have come as a shock to many when the inner virtuoso emerged on New Year’s Eve, 1980, with the second solo effort from the multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter: Arc of a Diver. Almost 32 years later, Winwood has revisited this watershed album as a 2-CD deluxe edition from Universal Music, and it still holds up as a taut, vibrant song cycle rather than as a curio of the past.
Though Winwood had a considerable C.V. prior to the release of Arc, and would have subsequent hits like 1986’s Back in the High Life, it remains one of the most enduring albums in his catalogue. Winwood wrote every track on the album, either on his own or in collaboration with Will Jennings (“Looks Like We Made It,” “My Heart Will Go On”), Vivian Stanshall (The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) or George Fleming. Winwood recorded Arc at his own home studios in Gloucestershire, England, joining an elite member of a group of one-man bands including Prince, Todd Rundgren and Jeff Lynne. Winwood played acoustic and electric guitars, bass, keyboards, synthesizers, drums and percussion. He produced and engineered the sessions himself, too, ending up with seven fairly sprawling tracks, all but one over five minutes in length.
The opening song, “While You See a Chance,” could have been Winwood’s credo. A shimmering pop confection with a relentlessly upbeat and optimistic message expressed both musically and in Jennings’ lyrics, it’s also an affirmative statement from a survivor. It implores all of us to seize that same strength of spirit, to refuse to give up even when the cards aren’t in your favor. This central theme resonates throughout the album, and is complemented by “Arc of a Diver,” the title track co-written with Vivian Stanshall. It’s ostensibly a love song, but its striking and unusual imagery also evokes a triumph over adversity. Even elements of nature won’t stand in Winwood’s way: “I play the piano, no more running honey/This time to the sky I'll sing if clouds don't hear me/To the sun I'll cry and even if I'm blinded/I'll try moon gazer because with you I'm stronger…” Positivity also echoes on another beloved album cut, “Spanish Dancer.” The central simile (“I can feel the beat/Like a Spanish dancer under my feet”) is repeated as Winwood blissfully recounts the effect music has on him. Like “While You See a Chance,” “Spanish Dancer” has a universal sentiment. It's cannily set to a hypnotic melody embellished with light funk and Latin flourishes.
This being rock and roll, there’s an ode to a “Second Hand Woman,” set to another bright melody with a gleaming, then-contemporary arrangement. The most overtly rocking track is the insistent “Night Train” with its locomotive metaphors, capturing the frenetic energy of a man who hasn’t slowed down, “looking for the break of day.” On the other end of the spectrum is “Slowdown, Sundown,” a low-key ballad that could easily be translated to the country-and-western idiom (“Slowdown sundown, all I really need is time/For faded love songs and feelings in the wine/Let them take me down the line…”) and offers a reflective respite in the album sequence. Yet both of those songs show a yearning for a personal peace. The album closer “Dust” is another mature reflection on the passage of time in the framework of a love song: “With you, dawn never tasted so good/Swept up like debris on a Saturday night…Dust, the timeless memory of you, I love you.”
What sets this deluxe edition of Arc of a Diver apart from past issues? Hit the jump!
Winwood’s recent track record for reissues has been a bit checkered, with fans and collectors alike confounded by the differing selections on the 2010 multi-artist, 4-CD box set Revolutions: The Very Best of Steve Winwood and its single-disc distillation. “While You See a Chance” was a U.S. Top 10 hit in 1981 and a No. 45 hit in the U.K. despite a notoriously-truncated radio edit, and while Winwood included the full album version on the box set, one had to purchase the highlights disc to own that single edit. It’s likewise absent from this new Arc of a Diver, meaning that a major part of the album’s story is missing. (“While You See a Chance” did fare better, however, than “Roll with It,” the Grammy-nominated song co-written with Jennings and introduced on Winwood’s 1988 album of the same name. That song was left off the 4-CD Revolutions altogether in favor of an appearance on the single disc.)
What is present, then? There are just three songs as bonus tracks. The original U.S. single edit of “Arc of a Diver” (which cuts a little over a minute from the song) has been included, along with the instrumental version of “Night Train” from a period single, and the “radio edit” of the 2010 version of “Spanish Dancer” from Revolutions. The majority of the second disc is devoted to the documentary Arc of a Diver: The Steve Winwood Story, originally aired on BBC Radio 2. It’s a bold choice, no doubt, to include this 56-minute history of the artist in favor of session material, alternates, live tracks, B-sides or single versions. Alas, the three selected songs seem arbitrarily chosen, as they do little to flesh out the story of the album.
Though it’s produced with the same hallmarks of quality that distinguish many of the BBC Radio 2 documentaries about prominent musical figures of our time, The Steve Winwood Story offers little in the way of replay value. (It’s also sequenced as one track, making it preferable to listen only when the full hour can be dedicated.) Kate Thornton narrates, and there are musical excerpts from the catalogues of the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, and of course, Winwood’s solo career on which it concentrates. It charts his influences in the blues, rock, folk, jazz and even classical genres (including Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis) as he set out, in his own words, to “try to create something that was unique.” Winwood isn’t the only interview subject; collaborators, friends and family members are also heard, including Russ Titelman, Nile Rodgers, Will Jennings, Van Morrison, Pete York, Klaus Schulze, Muff Winwood and the late Jim Capaldi. The album Arc of a Diver is addressed roughly one-third of the way into the program, but just for a brief few minutes. Elsewhere, there’s a fun anecdote from Titelman involving Chaka Khan, frank discussion of the tensions within Traffic between Winwood and Dave Mason, and reflections from various personnel about Winwood’s creative process. It’s illuminating, but can’t entirely make up for the lack of rare, or new-to-CD, material pertaining to the album sessions and releases. David Hepworth provides new liner notes to round out the package.
If the new 2-CD Arc of a Diver doesn’t entirely illustrate the arc of the album’s making, it remains an important, work by an important, and beloved, artist. Those wishing to revisit this vivid, spirited album won’t go wrong here, but the specter of what might have been in an all-encompassing, song-packed 2-CD deluxe edition, still lingers.
You can order Arc of a Diver here!