Sunday, February 22, 2015

While You See A Chance (For A Slick '80s Career Re-Boot), Take It

OK, so that first solo album didn't work out so hot. What was a Winwood to do?

How about retreat to his farm (where he'd already built his own private studio), and start hatching a plan? I suppose desperate times called for desperate measures. I mean, here was a man who could have invited a Dream Team of British studio musicians to join him in making a follow-up. He invited ... no one. Sometimes a Yuppie Rocker needs to make a solitary sojourn into the unknown, needs to confront his inner A&R man, needs to strip himself down to the bare wannabe-New Wave essentials.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Arc Of A Diver. Yes, Winwood's second solo album was truly a "solo" album. He and Stevie Wonder already shared the same initials, but did that really mean they needed to start sharing the same recording methods? According to Wikipedia, Winwood played "acoustic & electric guitars, bass, drums, percussion, drum machines, keyboards, synthesizers, organ, lead & backing vocals." What, no zither?

At the start of "While You See A Chance," whatever instrument he's playing sounds like an elephant seal's queef, but once the drums kick in, that queef turns into a jet engine, spewing synthesized elephant seal love all over your eardrums. Sound a little gross? Steve Winwood doesn't know the meaning of gross. But that's not quite the best part. Yes, like "In The Air Tonight," "While You See A Chance" has a universally agreed-upon "best part." A tambourine is a simple instrument, but deployed strategically, it can turn a catchy song into a life-affirming gust of wind. Right at 0:40, when Winwood really lets that tambourine fly (better heard on the stereo album mix), "While You See A Chance" becomes that gust. It's like that moment (to use a Bay Area example, although I will neither confirm nor deny that I live there) when you're driving south on Highway 101 through the Waldo Tunnel, and suddenly out of nowhere the entirety of the Golden Gate Bridge comes into view. Or when you're driving west on Interstate 80, and you pop out of Yerba Buena Island, and boom!, there's the western span of the Bay Bridge. You're sitting in a drab, ugly, shitty tunnel, and then the brightness creeps into your eyes, and this world-class vista just hits you. The elephant seal queef synthesizer is that tunnel, and the tambourine is that vista. Wait. That's not it. Yeah. I'm moving on.

"While You See A Chance" is like the "I Have a Dream" speech for white yuppie people. It's like a synth-pop PSA. Believe in yourself, and you can do anything - even resuscitate your solo career!
Stand up in a clear blue morning until you see what can be
Alone in a cold day dawning, are you still free? Can you be?

When some cold tomorrow finds you, when some sad old dream reminds you
How the endless road unwinds you

While you see a chance take it, find romance make it
Because it's all on you

Don't you know by now no one gives you anything
Don't you wonder how you keep on moving one more day your way

When there's no one left to leave you, even you don't quite believe you
That's when nothing can deceive you

And that old gray wind is blowing and there's nothing left worth knowing
And it's time you should be going
"Even you don't quite believe you?" Uh, Steve, don't you mean "even you don't quite believe yourself"? I guess the grammatically correct version didn't scan so well. Forget it guys, he's rolling. The video finds Winwood stuck on the set of Tron with, it appears, Cirque du Soliel's minor league affiliate. The humans of this particular world (if they're humans at all) worship the Plywood Pyramid God, and only speak to each other by reflecting light off their hand mirrors. Personally, I wouldn't want to live there, but obviously Winwood feels right at home. Several YouTube commentators have compared his appearance to Conan O'Brien, but I'm going to go a little more contemporary and say ... Benedict Cumberbatch?

You know, for a boring white guy, Steve Winwood really knew how to groove. He was like a one-man Hall & Oates! I've recently discovered Arc Of A Diver's title track, which has a haunting melody worthy of the Bee Gees but a funky rhythm track worthy of Earth, Wind & Fire - or vice versa. Also, the lyrics make no sense:
She bathes me in sweetness I cannot reveal
For sharing dreams I need my woman
This humble expression meagerly dressed
My eyes so mean it has no meaning

But jealous night and all her secret chords
I must be deaf on the telephone
I need my love to translate

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
"Bathes me in sweetness"? "Moon gazer"? He sounds like he's been listening to too many Donovan records. These lyrics don't even rhyme! Besides, if the sun blinds you, looking at the moon isn't going to help ... because you'll be blind. "I need my love to translate"? Great, now he's using his girlfriend as his foreign language interpreter? Just get a software program for that, Steve. Oh yeah, then his rock 'n' roll starts overeating, and he tops it all off by threatening to rob the past, present, and future at gunpoint:
Arc of a diver effortlessly
My mind in sky and when I wake up
Daytime and nighttime I feel you near
Warm water breathing, she helps me here

Lean streaky music spawned on the streets
I hear it but with you I had to go
'Cause my rock 'n' roll is putting on weight
And the beat it goes on

With you my love we're going to raid the future
With you my love we're going to stick up the past
We'll hold today to ransom 'til our quartz clock stops until yesterday
Whatever, it's got a good beat, and I can drive my Volvo to it.

Although "Night Train," arguably the world's greatest Giorgio Moroder homage, deserves a mention, the real hidden gem of Arc Of A Diver has got to be "Spanish Dancer," where Winwood funks it up harder than Rick James and George Clinton in Patti LaBelle's backyard hot tub. He programs the synthesizer to what sounds like its "Japanese harpsichord" setting, and then for six minutes he just goes to town. It kind of sounds like a laser beam trying to perform Swan Lake, but hey, I'd pay to see that. I wouldn't call it much of a "composition': there's a nice bridge, but there's either no chorus, or no verse, I'm not sure which. He probably thought, "I don't need no chorus or verse, I'm fucking Steve Winwood." Well, when released as a single, it flopped like a Spanish dancer, but don't worry '80s: Steve Winwood, Yuppie Rocker, had seen his chance, and he was only just beginning to take it.

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