Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Steve Winwood - Arc Of A Diver

Steve Winwood
Arc Of A Diver

Released 1980 on Island
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 22/08/2006ce

Late spring, 1981, speeding north on a deserted highway as a pungent red sky emerges from a darkened horizon. It’s been a hot, close, perfect night, the kind of night that you never want to end, but if it must, then it might as well look and feel like this. Your eyes are heavy, your heart is full, it’s just as well it’s Susie and not you who’s driving. She’s turned on the car stereo, not so much for entertainment but to stay awake at the wheel. The music seems to emerge out of the half light of the dawn: slow, ascending and descending notes and chords, floating like gossamer in the changing sky, while lazy, half-realised keyboard phrases call and answer each other from left and right. Susie smiles as the sun, and the music, turns the night into day. You can feel the heat like a Spanish dancer, under your feet…

Aw shucks, it was just a dream. Back to now, and cold, hard reality.

I would love to know what was going through Steve Winwood’s mind when he composed the heavenly music that became ‘Spanish Dancer’, not to mention the other six tracks that make up 'Arc Of A Diver'. On the face of it, the chances of creating anything that sounded remotely other-worldly at the time were dramatically slim: alone in a small, home-built studio, with a primitive, tinny drum machine and an array of sterile, up-to-the-minute synths and keyboards (the sound of which posterity would age faster than a pork pie), the prospects were not great. The first album under his own name three years earlier had been worthy, but no classic (the mighty ‘Time Is Running Out’ excepted), and had in any case been more of a collaborative affair with his old Traffic chum Jim Capaldi. Now, notwithstanding the questionable lyric input of a few friends (of which more below), he was on his own: his creative muse at the mercy of the self-same cold, slick technology that made that other "Little Stevie's" output of the period so disappointingly anodyne. That Steve Winwood came through this challenge with what to these ears remains a solo career high - artistically if not commercially - is to his eternal credit, especially considering the blandness of so many of his contemporaries' offerings that literally blew in the cold winds of punk fallout.

Yes, dear readers, I believe 'Arc Of A Diver' to be a fine album, maybe not strictly "unsung" in the commercial sense, but certainly in critical terms. But before I test your tolerance with my admittedly personal reasoning, I'd better get a couple of qualifying comments out of the way. First off, those annoying early 80's keyboards do get in the way sometimes, to the extent that the joyous grooves and melodies herein may take a couple of listens to reveal themselves. Don't worry - I'm sure that, with patience, they will. Secondly, don't listen to this album for lyrical insights, as there are some verbal embarrassments going down here, not least in the absurdly pretentious title track (not one of Vivian Stanshall's - for it is he - greater achievements) and at various points elsewhere. It would seem that Steve felt his own poetic imagination lay in his music alone, hence the employment of a few friends to handle the lyrics on an otherwise exclusively DIY exercise. Again, no matter: here we have one of THE great white singers of his or any other generation, with a voice that kills all known germs DEAD. In short, it doesn't matter how trite the words are, because when Stevie sings you'll hear more than just violins: prepare to cry. In 'Slowdown Sundown', for example, a very average Will Jennings lyric becomes sheer poetry when intoned by that pure midland larynx, crowning a misleadingly understated blue-eyed soul ballad that is blessed by its creator's (thankfully still present) Hammond organ counterpoint and a gloriously uplifting centre section with tastefully dubbed harmonies: two Winwoods for the price of one, no less. Lovely, as is the album's tendersweet closing song 'Dust', on which our hero transcends even his earlier vocal achievements - not to mention the wowing, tonally-suspect sustained synthesiser lines - with a voice that dreams are made of. Heaven is in your mind, indeed.

'While You See A Chance' is the album's opening track and lead single, a big, bold and beaty ballad with teasing and pleasing dissonances worthy of J.S. Bach. The fade in at the beginning comes on like the first glimpse of light after a year in the dark; a glorious way to start both the song and the album. 'Arc Of A Diver' follows, and despite a ludicrous lyric that would make even Jon Anderson wince, we are again in the midst of the most sublime melodic and harmonic invention: a complex yet beautiful song, ending with another vocal duet courtesy of Winwood and Winwood.

If those intricate opening salvoes appear to blur the rhythm and blues heritage of their creator, we are led onto simpler and surer pathways by the album's two unashamedly upbeat numbers 'Second Hand Woman' and 'Night Train', both driven by an insanely catchy motorik beat and basslines blagged from Bootsy's Bible. The latter sees Steve regail us with some awesome lead guitar work that tells his clapt-out Blind Faith mucker where to get off. It goes on forever, yet still doesn't last half as long as it should: it's that good.

Which brings me back to that dream again, the perfect music that accompanied it, and the main reason I wanted to bring this record to your attention.

When I die, I want 'Spanish Dancer' played at my funeral. More than any other song I have ever heard from anyone (and I've heard a lot of music in my groove-obsessed, forty-odd years), 'Spanish Dancer' moves me out of my very soul and skywards. I don't know whether it's the lilting, see-saw rhythms of the song, it's call-and-response synth motifs (in perfect stereo), the ever-unresolved, slow-moving chord sequence, the simplistic yet irresistably funky bass lick that comes in and out of the mix at just the right moments, Winwood's emotive voice, or the astral melody of the twice-played middle-eight that does it for me; maybe it's all of these things and more. All I do know is that if I was told I was to go deaf in ten minutes' time, I'd play 'Spanish Dancer' in it's entirety, and then I'd play half of it again.

When music gets this good, nothing much else matters.

I could kiss its composer for making it so.

And Susie too.

(I lied about that dream, by the way. It really happened, but I reckon you probably guessed that already. Susie moved on shortly afterwards for a man she later married, leaving me with the memory of a perfect night on the A1...and a tape of 'Arc Of A Diver'. I've never complained.)

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