Song 346: Steve Winwood, “Back in the High Life Again” (1986)

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Until recently, I thought of “Back in the High Life Again” as a kind of victory song: I was down, but now I’m up again. I’m back, baby! But no—he will be back in the high life again. Steve Winwood’s going through some tough times, and he’s either actually about to come back in a big way, or he’s just kidding himself. Either way, he honestly believes that happiness is just on the horizon. But not yet.

“Back in the High Life Again” was a huge hit in 1986, and while the “high life” theme certainly fits the success-obsessed ‘80s, I’m always taken aback by the arrangement and the production. In 1986, the “unplugged” boom was at least four years away; I’d imagine that hearing mandolin on a hit rock record was rather startling. Aside from those little synth hits on the bridge (“We’ll drink and dance with one hand free”), this sounds nothing to me like 1986, the year of Top Gun and “Papa Don’t Preach.” This sounds like the acoustic guitar-obsessed early nineties.

Now that I’m about, say, 25 years older than when I first heard it, “Back in the High Life Again” sounds like a song about aging—specifically, about an aging musician. I’ve been in the business so long, Winwood seems to be saying, coasting on my reputation and resting on my laurels, and it’s time to see if you’ll have me back as an artist. Back in the High Life was Winwood’s third solo record, but in many ways, it sounds like his first: between this song, “The Finer Things,” and “Higher Love,” Winwood had roared back into the spotlight. (Those last two songs, it should be noted, sound exactly like 1986.) I love the song’s confident energy, and I absolutely adore the arrangement, with its borderline-giddy drums and, yes, Winwood’s mandolin. It’s all gorgeous.

One thing about this song that I don’t like: James Taylor’s role. I like Taylor, but you can barely hear him singing backup in the chorus. So by the time he pops up for a solo line at the end (a hilariously lightweight “Back in the hiiiigh life”), you just think, “Where did James Taylor come from?!” It’s as if he opened the studio door, sang that one line, and ran away like some balding prankster. But maybe that kind of fun is what the high life affords you.

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