Winwood is a flatliner. Admittedly he’s cruising at an elevation that’s high above most of his pop contemporaries, but the fact is that if you were plotting a graph of his solo career, it would be a straight horizontal line with one single spike signifying the extraordinary success of Back in the High Life.
That album was packed from stem to stern. All the rest of his releases have contained a few good songs surrounded by a considerable stuffing, the aural equivalent of Hamburger Helper.
Refugees of the Heart is typical. The only real musical adventure on this collection is the vibey percussive feast of “In the Light of Day.” Of course, the one enormous advantage Winwood has always had, going back to his teen years with the Spencer Davis Group, is his awe-inspiring voice, so soaring and tensile in tone that by all rights Winwood should be nicknamed the Hawk. Those pipes enable him to light up what would otherwise be rather forgettable songs, such as “Running On” and “I Will Be Here.”
His voice isn’t really capable of alchemy, though. And way too many of the songs on this album ought to be shelved somewhere between the hopelessly derivative (“Come Out and Dance”) and the merely humdrum (“One and Only Man,” say, or “Another” Deal Goes Down”). That last song, with Larry Byrom’s toothless slide-guitar work, sounds like an outtake from a Glenn Frey recording session (if indeed there ever is such a thing).
When Winwood turns his talent to quality material, the result is incomparable. That magic occurs on “You’ll Keep on Searching,” a moving ballad reminiscent of vintage Joni Mitchell, and on “Everyday,” a return for Winwood to his Arc of a Diver-era style.
So Refugees of the Heart is average Winwood: a superior record at some moments, eminently forgettable at others. (Virgin)