“Higher Love” — Kygo and Whitney Houston

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Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

For some, the idea of remixing the work of a classic artist is an anathema. When done well, I quite like it.

Music never stays the same…in fact that’s one of the things I like most about it. Music evolves over time.

Even some of the people who complain about remixes and updated versions don’t realise that some of the “classics” they’re very firmly wedded to weren’t always the first version of songs they love either. Surprisingly, they’re often covers and for iconic artists like Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, often the version of their classics remembered today is the third or fourth time they recorded the same song over the years.

Lately Norwegian DJ Kygo has been riding high in the charts with his reworked version of Whitney Houston’s recording of “Higher Love”.

Normally this would have attracted howls of protest, but I think Kygo got away with it because “Higher Love” wasn’t an especially well-known Whitney Houston track in the first place. It originally appeared as a bonus track on a 1990 Japan-only album of hers. I couldn’t imagine someone getting away with a remix of “I Will Always Love You” quite so easily…

However Whitney Houston was not the first artist to record “Higher Love”. That was Steve Winwood back in 1986, who also wrote the song, alongside Will Jennings.

And Steve Winwood did well with his original version. It reached Number One on the Billboard Hot 100, and was a UK Top 20 record. “Higher Love” also picked up the Record of the Year award at the Grammys.

The only differences between the Steve Winwood version of “Higher Love” are that Whitney left out the bridge on the original version and that, four years on, synthesizer technology had advanced somewhat which, depending on how much you enjoy the late 80s/ early 90s synthesizer sound, may or may not represent an improvement.

Of course, with respect to Steve Winwood’s own considerable talents, I don’t think many people would want to take on Whitney Houston in a “who’s the best singer of this song” competition.

At this stage in her career, the soaring vocals and sweet tone Whitney Houston was famous for were at their peak. And they were perfect for a song that pleads for some sort of divine intervention…

Through the fog of the 1980s synthesizer sound, and bearing in mind Steve Winwood was a white Englishman, “Higher Love” sounds and feels like a gospel song. Part of that was Chaka Khan helping out on backing vocals, perhaps, but in the midst of the pretty godless years of greed and individuality which characterised the 1980s, pleas for divine intervention were a slightly unusual subject matter for a Number One song at the time.

That said, you can see why one of the finest singers of the late 20th century picked “Higher Love” to cover. With Whitney Houston’s background in gospel singing, it was both a subject matter and singing style she was very comfortable with.

You can hear it quite clearly on her 1990 version of “Higher Love”. For a performance which would have less talented vocalists straining at the very limit of their vocal abilities, you don’t get the feeling Whitney Houston’s anywhere near the limits of her vocal ability on the track.

I’m not suggesting for a moment she turned up in the recording studio and just went through the motions. Rather, it’s because her talent was so immense that even a vocal most of us would marvel at was pretty easy for her to pull off.

For that reason, “Higher Love” seems to be a song she’s enjoying herself with. There’s a joy in her performance and I think that might be because it wasn’t all that technically demanding (for her, not for the rest of us). So she could afford not to concentrate quite so hard on the technique and instead relax into the style of song she’d sung many times as a child in church back in New Jersey.

I really get the sense that Whitney Houston is communing with some sort of higher power in her delivery of the song. For a great talent who would lose her way a little in the years to come, “Higher Love” captures for all time the talents of a singer who deserves to be called “iconic” more than most.

Facing fears and standing out there alone was something Whitney Houston knew all about.

Her talent as a child lead to immense success very early for Whitney Houston. She was signed to Clive Davis’s Arista Records aged 19 and within a couple of years scored her first global hit with her self-titled debut album. That album would go on to sell over 25 million copies around the world and spawned her first UK and US Number One record with “Saving All My Love For You”.

By the time she recorded “Higher Love”, Whitney Houston had been one of the planet’s biggest stars for half a decade…and there was a lot more to come.

She hadn’t yet filmed “The Bodyguard” or recorded its soundtrack. She hadn’t yet dominated the pop charts for weeks with “I Will Always Love You”…another cover, by the way, and despite its iconic status not the original version, or even the original hit version of this song.

For all the fuss that people make about having iconic tracks remixed, Whitney Houston “remixed” Dolly Parton’s original 1974 hit version of “I Will Always Love You”. She made it into a worldwide Number One and set a record, at the time, for the number of consecutive weeks spent at Number One in the Billboard Hot 100….all 14 of them…

Two years before “The Bodyguard”, when she was recording “Higher Love”, Whitney Houston hadn’t even peaked yet and some of the excesses of her later years were yet to take their toll.

She still had the voice and the playful approach we associate with memories of Whitney Houston.

If anyone needed the intervention of a “higher love” it was Whitney Houston.

Like a lot of great talents, she was ultimately self-destructive. Whether that was the pressure of fame, the abusive relationships, the narcotic use or something else, we’ll never know for sure.

We all keep our very worst demons locked up inside ourselves.

And I may be reading far too much into a performance on a record from 1990, but listening to it today, there’s something in that version of “Higher Love” which feels very vulnerable, even though it’s also joyful and she has a lot of fun with the song too. (Here, if you’d like a listen…https://youtu.be/qptYbFBzo8U )

That element of vulnerability isn’t quite so evident on Kygo’s dance mix, perhaps unsurprisingly, but that doesn’t stop his version being a tremendous piece of work in its own right too.

There’s a pace and intensity to the re-worked version which is classily done. Although it’s clearly a dance mix, it’s not so “in your face” that everything good about the original gets lost among the programmed beats and keyboard-generated hooks.

Yes, the hint of vulnerability perhaps isn’t there. But the soaring vocals and the gospel feel definitely is. There’s also a fresher feel to the song with the late 80’s/ early 90’s synthesizer sound updated for the new millennium.

I really do think it works. It does more than work. Kygo reinvents a classic…albeit one that few of us would have heard 30 years ago…and does so in a respectful way which makes the results greater than the sum of the parts.

Kygo’s update of Whitney Houston’s “Higher Love” is a classic in its own right, adding the production talents of a very stylish producer with the vocal talents of someone we still admire, although she’s been gone nearly a decade now.

I know some people find it hard to accept updated versions of songs, especially when they’re by much-loved, iconic artists. But I really would encourage you to overcome any reluctance you might feel and give Kygo and Whitney Houston’s collaboration a spin. It’s one of my favourite songs of 2019.

Here’s Kygo and Whitney Houston with “Higher Love”…

https://open.spotify.com/track/6oJ6le65B3SEqPwMRNXWjY

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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