Amy Winehouse - Back to Black

Posted 5 years ago

Amy Winehouse’s short, beautiful and painful life ended two weeks ago. In her last few years...

Back to Black Album Review

Amy Winehouse’s short, beautiful and painful life ended two weeks ago. In her last few years she became something less than a person, a joke to be leered at by the public intent like a slow motion car accident. But before all that, before the Grammys and the disastrous live shows and the tabloid feeding frenzy, she was a young singer locked in a studio making one of the best R&B albums of our generation. An album that, in fact, spanned generations. Heavily influenced by the classic soul of Etta James, the rebellious doo-wop of The Shangri-Las and The Ronettes and just a touch of Slick Rick, Winehouse’s sophomore album Back to Black came at the perfect time. Two years prior she had made Frank, a stylistically remarkable but ultimately not particularly compelling debut album. Two years later and she was already too gone to make music at all. For one brilliant moment though she possessed the gravitational pull of any person on the verge of destroying themselves, but she was still coherent enough to embed that pain in every note, capable of bringing us to the edge with her without dragging us off the cliff with her.

I don’t usually write reviews for albums that came out more than five years ago, but I’ve always regretted that I started writing for DJBooth too late to delve into Back to Black. Every serious mountain climber dreams of summiting Everest, every serious NBA rookie visualizes scoring on Kobe and every serious music writer fantasizes about an album like Back to Black. If you really want to be the best it’s a challenge you can’t back down from, so when I first heard the news that Winehouse had been found dead in her London home I realized that if I didn’t write about Back to Black now, I never would.

So here we are, about to dive head first into Rehab, although lord knows I don’t want to. Winehouse’s breakthrough single, the song that turned her into a cultural reference point, has been so overplayed that I always simply start the album at track two (conveniently Rehab’s the album’s first song). But you really can’t understand Winehouse, and our fascination with her, without Rehab. We’d heard artists revel in their addictions before, but not with this kind of happy defiance. The juxtaposition between Mark Ronson’s addictive, clapping production and the darkness that’s hinted at but never truly revealed is compelling in a strange way that I don’t really understand, and I don’t think the thousands of people who joyfully sang along to Rehab understood either. There was just something about Rehab that made you want to hear it again and again…until you never wanted to hear it again.

Winehouse’s critics charge that she was merely copy, a white English girl mimicking black American soul singers, but Back to Black’s soul was a grimier, more self-destructive and self-recriminating kind of soul than we’d ever really heard before. While most heartbroken female R&B singers would point an angry finger at the cheating man, Winehouse heaps the blame on herself: “I cheated myself / Like I knew I would / I told you I was trouble / You know that I'm no good.” Beyonce’s strong enough to kick her man to the curb when he strays, but only Winehouse would issue a warning. This is a brand of bad-ass female R&B that bypasses the Beyonce/Mariah/Whitney female empowerment of modern R&B and goes further back to the hard drinking ways of Nina Simone and Marlena Shaw. In fact, my favorite moment in Back to Black, not just favorite song but favorite moment, is when she opens up the slowly charging Me & Mr. Jones with one of the greatest openings I’ve ever heard: “What kind of f**kery is this? / you made me miss the Slick Rick.” Throw in back-up singers echoing “oooh Slick Rick” and I was in love with Amy Winehouse. It was a love that would prove to be complicated and dangerous, but I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

Those moments of freshness populate the album and keep it from dragging, I’m especially fond of Wake Up Alone’s “I’ll clean the house, at least I’m not drinking,” but Back to Black isn’t a great album because it’s clever or a new take on a classic style. It’s a great album because you feel it. When she slowly sings “You go back to her / And I go back to black” on the title track you believe her absolutely. It’s a suicide note set to music, and unfortunately one that proved to be only too real. Tragically it was her pain, the same pain that directly or indirectly lead to her death, that made her music so compelling. It’s a terrible price to pay for a classic album, but I prefer to believe that at the least she’s free now. In fact, I like to picture her in heaven, looking around at the chorus of assembles angers, lighting a cigarette and asking, “What kind of f**kery is this?”

DJBooth Rating - 5 Spins

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