In recent weeks these pages have not been kind to classic rock acts. In fact, they've been downright hostile. First, Steven Almond charted the creative crash and burn of Paul McCartney (July 24). Then, I went after the Who for selling out (August 14). Almond came roaring back with a dyspeptic essay that likened Graham Nash to "a speck of mold on the bottom of rock in a rotten, dirty place that no one ever visits, not even animals." Well, the Graham Nash thing never happened, but it could have. That's how rough it's been for classic rock stars around here.
Some people -- loyal readers, colleagues, parents -- have complained that this kind of criticism is nothing more than puerility hiding behind the mask of authority. One woman who has read New Times since its inception wondered if perhaps Mr. Almond and I weren't venting our own frustrations at our own
speck-of-mold-size creative achievements. I drafted a letter in response, and it began like this: "Hey, lady, shut the hell up! No one wants to hear your stupid theories!" But then I thought about it. While I'm not exactly champing at the bit -- and I do have a bit -- to hear her stupid theories, I'd rather hear them recited aloud in all the languages of the world than listen to the new Steve Winwood album again.
As a teenager, Steve Winwood was a rock star. A real rock star. Armed with precocious, ferocious R&B pipes, he fronted the Spencer Davis Group, one of the most successful attempts to turbocharge the Ray Charles sound for the rock crowd. Even today, its power eroded by hundreds of thousands of appearances on classic rock radio, "Gimme Some Lovin'" still holds up, as do "I'm a Man," "I Can't Stand It," and "Keep On Running."
At the height of the band's popularity, Winwood jumped ship to form Traffic, which let him be the top dog in a talented kennel that included Dave Mason, Chris Wood, and Jim Capaldi. The songs were jazzy, expansive, psychedelic, and memorable, from "Dear Mr. Fantasy" to "Feelin' Alright" to "Pearly Queen" and beyond. After two albums Winwood took a break to join Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton in Blind Faith, a supergroup remembered primarily for helping rock critics coin the term "supergroup." When Blind Faith petered out, Winwood returned to play in Traffic and reeled off more hits -- most notably "John Barleycorn," "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys," "Freedom Rider."
That's the good news about his career. Here's the bad news: The good news ended in 1974. In the twenty-plus years since Traffic's last jam, Winwood has done his level best to become the living embodiment of the word duh. Some critics claim that his second solo album, 1980's Arc of a Diver, was a masterpiece, in large part because of the hit "While You See a Chance."
Some critics are stupid.
"While You See a Chance," like everything Winwood has touched since 1974, is uninspiring, unintelligent, and uninteresting. It's less a song than an anesthetic. Hammer a nail into your hand and then play it loud. You'll see. And the fuzzy, fatuous lyrics are the kind of inspirational nonsense you expect to see mounted on the wall of your pastor's office.
Bad only got worse. Winwood became a huge star (again) in 1986, thanks to the lethargic "Higher Love" (which couldn't be saved even by Chaka Khan wailing in the background) and the sickly smooth "Back in the High Life." Then came Roll with It, with its disingenuously good-timey title tune and the beer commercial "Don't You Know What the Night Can Do?" Then Refugees of the Heart, with its ... well, with its eight songs of slightly more than tolerable length and considerably less than interesting musical content. Despite being a fixture on VH1 and AOR radio, Winwood seemed to have exhausted whatever tiny bit of energy was left in him, or in his partnership with lyricist Will Jennings. A 1994 reunion with Jim Capaldi produced a new Traffic album, Far from Home, that was far from good. Even Winwood's defenders stopped defending him.
And this summer he stopped defending himself, mostly by releasing Junction Seven, his seventh (duh) solo album and the second one in a row that as much as throws up its hands and says, "I've got nothing left to give." Jennings is gone, and in his place are Winwood's wife Eugenia and Capaldi. The results? Well, let's just say that if dull were people, this album would be China. "Just Wanna Have Some Fun" is a cartoonish carbon copy of the far superior "Roll with It." ("The far superior 'Roll with It'"? That's a phrase you don't often see.) "Plenty Lovin'" is a flat duet with the equally soulless Des'ree. "Real Love" is a wonderful ballad in the sense that balsa is a wonderful wood.
Why is Junction Seven such a bad record? That's like asking why Pol Pot wasn't great for Cambodia. Musically, this is one of the flattest, glossiest, least-textured products (and I do mean "products") you'll ever hear. The stench of Narada Michael Walden, who has sandbagged legitimate soul legends like Aretha Franklin and Al Green, is all over this disc. And Winwood's ever-deteriorating lyrics are the perfect complement to this sonic pap. "Angel of Mercy" stabs both meteorology and psychology in the back with the simple-minded insight "When the sun turns to rain/Then our loss can be gain." And "Fill Me Up" begins with what Winwood (and the rest of his ninth-grade creative writing class) must believe is clever wordplay: "There was a time when I was blind/I had no faith, I had no pride." Bring me a higher love? I'd settle for a higher standard.
But these songs don't even approach the worst moment on the record, which is Winwood's desecration of Sly and the Family Stone's "Family Affair." Not only does the peppy, synth-driven arrangement disembowel the song's disturbing message of dependence, challenged loyalty, and despair, but the tacked-on coda -- which goes something like "Na na na one family, na na na one love" -- takes the ripped-out entrails and spits on them. What kind of idiot covers a complex, rewarding pop song and irons out the wrinkles just to suit his pinheaded, Pollyanna fantasies? This kind of idiot. Winwood's voice is in fine form -- I guess I should probably concede that -- but his muse is in graceless mutiny. If you care about rock music, or believe that it's still supposed to occasionally transcend irrelevance, this album will make you sick to your stomach.
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In light of Junction Seven, I call for Steve Winwood's public execution. Too severe? Okay. But having him dragged through the mud by dray horses doesn't seem quite severe enough. Here's a compromise: a ban on concertgoers who are not entirely deaf.
And Mr. Winwood, if you read this -- or rather, if your people read this to you -- consider this a calling-out. You have one of rock's historic voices and one of rock's richest histories. So why are you such a talentless simp these days? I've never written lyrics, but I guarantee I could write better ones than the crap you're turning out. I'll write about lend-lease agreements, Vietnamese potbellied pigs, desquamation -- anything other than self-activation and wide-eyed love.
On the off chance that I can't outwrite you, I'll personally eat the liner notes to Junction Seven. On VH1. In prime time.
Steve Winwood performs at 8:00 p.m. Friday, September 19, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave, Fort Lauderdale, 954-523-3309. Tickets cost $28.75 and $37.50.