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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Song 241: Run-D.M.C., “It’s Tricky” (1986)

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You don’t often hear hip-hop songs about how hard it is to rap. Everything’s supposed to sound effortless, and you’re supposed to be the best, the richest, the greatest that ever lived. So it’s surprising—still!—to hear a track about how it’s not only hard to rap as Run-D.M.C., but how hard it is to be Run-D.M.C. Sure, Kanye raps about he can’t get a damn croissant, and Jay-Z raps about the jealous rookies nipping at his heels, but you don’t often hear lines like “I’m not braggin’, people naggin, ‘cuz they think I’m a star.” People think I’m a star. They must be mistaken.

Admittedly, this difference is largely due to a philosophical gap between early rap and modern hip-hop. But I really do think there was a humility to Run-D.M.C., a kind of disbelief that they completely lucked out. “It’s Tricky” is full of rabid fans and fancy cars, but behind it all are Run, D.M.C., and Jam Master Jay, just trying to keep up. It’s not swagger, it’s angst.

Of course, this humility is completely unwarranted. The first four tracks of the group’s (and genre’s) breakthrough, Raising Hell, are like a road map for the future of hip-hop: “Peter Piper,” “It’s Tricky,” “My Adidas,” “Walk This Way.” You don’t get a better Side 1 than that.


Song 183: The Cure, “Close to Me” (1986)

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I avoided The Cure for years and years. They just seemed so dark. Robert Smith looked like the joker, their records had names like Disintegration and Pornography, and their fans dressed in black. It didn’t sound like my kind of scene.

And then, sometime in college, I realized that this was the band behind “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Friday I’m In Love,” “Just Like Heaven” … this was not the band I thought they were. They’re capable of darkness, of course, but even those songs have a lightness to them, as if dusk is just setting in. It’s not that I needed The Cure to be pop masters in order for me to like them, I was just surprised that they had songs I could like.

I was even more surprised to learn that they had a song with a peppy horn section. True, only the below remix of “Close to Me” has these horns (the original version appeared a year earlier, on the record The Head on the Door), but the thing is so damn fun that I still can’t believe it belongs to a band who basically started the Goth scene. What the what?

I love this song’s energy, and I love how those horns surprise you. Most of all, I love how the parts of this song get assembled as it goes: The drums and handclaps come in first, then the bass, then the keyboards that provide the foundation of the song. Then that synth, with its light-as-air “boop boop boop,” drops in, followed by another synth line as counterpoint. It’s like the band is showing you how to arrange a song, piece by piece. Ingredients in the recipe.

The horn entrance makes me laugh every time, even though I know it’s coming. The way they slide in is like a sly little wink, a nod to the fact that it would be funny if the song suddenly had horns. After all these years of knowing that The Cure isn’t about funeral pyres and mopiness, I’m still constantly surprised at how happy they can be. I think the fact that they’re capable of such emotional extremes is very impressive.

Now, a personal note: this post marks the halfway point of this blog (well, technically the halfway point would be halfway through this post, but I didn’t want to break up my very impressive essay about synths going “boop boop boop”). Thank you so much for reading, to whatever extent that you have. It’s been such a fun project, and a really good way for me to keep writing every day.


Song 103: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, “I Want You” (1986)

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This is another one that I’ve been putting off for a while, because how do you choose one Elvis Costello song? (I’ve also been trying to stick with one song per artist, which will probably change at some point, but we’ll see how long I can follow my own rules.) Costello probably rivals the Beatles in providing me with ideas about what a song can be. His lyrics are often master classes in innuendo and double entendre, and his melodies typically offer a sweet counterpoint to his bitter words. Like the best writers, his works are little worlds unto themselves, with living, breathing characters.

In some ways, “I Want You” is an atypical Elvis Costello song. It’s much more straightforward than his songs usually are, which is what makes it so striking. To me, it sounds stark, unrelenting, and direct. Costello, however, apparently disagrees: “The sound of this track was always going to be the aural equivalent of a blurred Polaroid, so no apologies for the lack of fidelity,” he wrote in the liner notes of his Girls Girls Girls compilation. “I Want You” sounds nothing like a blurred photograph to me.