Steve Winwood’s hugely successful Arc of a Diver (released 12/31/80) was not the first album released under his own name alone or even his first foray into solo work. His eponymous release of 1977 holds the former distinction, while the iconic Traffic album John Barleycorn Must Die was initially intended to be an effort apart from that group. Nevertheless, the album released on New Year’s Eve 1980 remains the effort that elevated this singular multi-instrumentalist’s name into widespread recognition beyond the fame he garnered with the aforementioned band or his prior stint with The Spencer Davis Group.
Arc of a Diver is certainly an album of its time, dominated by electric keyboards and synthesizers in lieu of the Hammond organ that had been Winwood’s signature instrument since his early days as a musical prodigy circa “I’m A Man.” The sound of the B3 is present, almost as an inner lining of the arrangement of the title song, but the more brittle and antiseptic textures hold sway through most of the record, including, most conspicuously and perhaps not coincidentally, on its best-known number “When You See A Chance.”
Ever so skilled as a guitarist, Winwood might well have ascended to status as a hero of the instrument had he pursued such acclaim. But there’s nevertheless precious little of that sound here. On “Night Train,” Steve does use an electric to alternately counterpoint and amplify the syncopated rhythm at the foundation of that penultimate number, but there’s nothing flashy in his playing (though its biting tone does recall the coda of “Dear Mr. Fantasy”). Brief flashes of acoustic fretboard work also decorate the melancholy closer, “Dust.”
But it remains for the vocals to truly distinguish that performance and, in reality, Arc of a Diver as a whole. Virtually unchanged since wailing “Gimme Some Lovin’” in 1966—and remaining so even today—the sound of the man’s voice rings true as the definition of graceful, ageless soul. Steve’s singing doesn’t exactly imbue warmth all the way into the drum machines of “Spanish Dancer,” but it does provide the necessary color for Will Jennings’ lyrics for “Slowdown Sundown.” Winwood played all the instruments on this record, but it is the skill of his phrasing and the very texture of his voice, humanizing each performance, that makes this LP worth coming back to.
Having built upon the foundation Paul McCartney built with his first solo album in 1970, as well as Stephen Stills’ predilection for overdubbing as on display for the eponymous Crosby, Stills and Nash debut, Winwood further refined the one-man-band approach two years later with Talking Back to the Night; there was an even greater sense of a bonafide band playing the music on that LP, which only renders Arc of A Diver more dated. The three bonus cuts on the second CD of the 2012 Deluxe Edition of the latter reaffirm that impression even as the rest of the content on that disc, devoted to a documentary on Steve’s career, spurs the notion that Winwood has never really made a record by himself that fully encapsulates his multi-faceted talent(s).
It’s thus a most understandable irony that the man’s natural gifts stand out in greatest relief in collaboration with others. For instance, 2003’s About Time not only marked the return to his favorite keyboard, but also a rediscovery of a looser, more improvisational approach in which he was sharing camaraderie with other musicians. Meanwhile, the live appearances with old friend Eric Clapton that began in earnest in 2008, captured on Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Live From Madison Square Garden, may well have provided the best setting for Winwood’s all-around abilities. Yet, even those vivid demonstrations of versatility in no way invalidate the breakthrough that was/is with Arc of A Diver.