Happy 10th Anniversary to Amy Winehouse’s second and final studio album Back to Black, originally released October 27, 2006.
“All I can ever be to you, is a darkness that we knew . . .”
When we lose someone close to us, we choose to remember them in our own way. Maybe there’s a particular moment indelibly carved in our consciousness or a solitary sparkle we remember them by. So it also goes when we lose artists in this media driven world. A world where every tiny action is picked over, analyzed and splashed over the tabloid covers or webpages. The late Amy Winehouse, who passed away at the age of 27 just over five years ago in July 2011, had much more than her fair share of that press attention, as they created a whirlwind of sensationalism around her every perceived indiscretion, no matter how miniscule.
Those same tabloids that were by turns fawning, disparaging and dismissive of her as she battled her own personal issues in that most public of forums, have picked over the bones of her life incessantly since her untimely demise, leaving it up to the saturated onlooker to find that moment, that memory, to remember her by.
My abiding memory of Amy Winehouse is to remember something so lacking in tragedy, that it makes a mockery of what was to follow. Ten years ago, barely two months after the release of her career defining second (and final) album Back to Black, she performed at the “Other Voices” music series in Dingle, County Kerry in Ireland. A million miles from the tabloid-riddled London scene she dominated, the small town became both ship and safe harbor for Winehouse.
The concert saw her robbed of some of her backing band due to inclement weather, and it became the vessel for a stripped-back performance that showcased the quality of the material and the charismatic presence of a star in the ascendant. Whilst sheltered from the pressures of metropolitan life, the accompanying interview revealed an open, engaging and opinionated artist who spoke passionately of the unadulterated joy that music brought her.
So that’s whom I choose to remember. An artist hell-bent on self-expression, with killer songs to boot. And what songs Back to Black provided. Described by Winehouse as simpler structured songs with less “crazy” time signatures than her 2003 debut LP Frank, it would be foolish to think that these songs were straightforward. Shot through with an unflinchingly honest lyricism and a lush, reverential production influenced by Winehouse’s newly discovered love for soul music (in particular female vocal groups of the early ‘60s like The Shirelles), it offered up eleven songs of short, sharply felt genius.
Such genius though often comes collaboratively and here it was no different. Firstly in Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, Winehouse found producers perfectly poised to create an entirely affectionate, but contemporary sounding homage to soul tracks of the 1960s. Meanwhile, the band that played much of the music (The Dap-Kings) created a pitch-perfect soul revue atmosphere, dripping with an undercurrent of Swampers funk, perfect for the high drama Winehouse concocted.
What had lit up the preceding Frank again provided the tension inside the sweetness, but this time with even greater intensity. The interplay between the sweet soul music and the acerbic, profanity-laden tales of heartbreak creates a dynamic frisson that never lets up. Witness the delightfully melodic self-sung backing vocals of “Me & Mr Jones” crooning the bitter, filthy “dick to me” refrain, to the accompaniment of a swooning, waltzing melody that captured the essence of that dynamic tension.
Thematically Winehouse mines a rich seam of heartbreak on bedrock of emotional defiance—several times she refers to dried up tears (aside from the obvious “Tears Dry on Their Own”), leaving the listener in no doubt that emotional trauma will occur, but that rejuvenation is also just around the corner. That this shines through only serves to double down on the tragedy that she herself would not get the chance to bounce back again some months later.
The self-admonishment of “You Know I’m No Good,” the world-weary “Love Is A Losing Game,” and the heart-breakingly morose “Wake Up Alone” may be somewhat counterbalanced by the stand by your man-ism of “Some Unholy War,” but the overriding emotion is the pain of loss and the turmoil of love.
Perhaps surprising in these days of endless songs and segues is the fact that from the punchy, shakily defiant “Rehab” to the breezily prescient “Addicted,” nothing overstays its welcome. The entire album is a little over 35 minutes long.
Even the crescendo and album centerpiece “Back to Black” barely lasts four minutes. Such is the emotional heft of this song, it seems barely possible that it clocks in at just two hundred and forty-one seconds. As much as the sound of the album is classic, so is the brevity. After all if it can’t be said in a four-minute song, is it worth saying at all?
With Back to Black, Amy Winehouse revealed herself to be a master painter and the album was the exquisite creation. A picture stretched tight to reveal the naked, worn and cracked canvas below. It’s uncomfortable, raw and resoundingly real. It’s soul music of the highest quality that will stand the test well beyond ten years.