Back to Black finds a fearless artist saying whatever she damn well pleases. And we best listen up.
Any artist who begins and ends her album with songs entitled "Rehab" and "Addicted" has a story to tell. Indeed, Amy Winehouse has many stories to tell. "Rehab", for one, chronicles her refusal to enter rehab at the behest of her management company; doing so would probably anesthetize the raw feelings that make Back to Black such an addictive listen.
The follow-up to Winehouse's acclaimed debut Frank (2003), Back to Black is clearly influenced by the sensibilities of 1960s pop and soul. With production by Salaam Remi (Joss Stone) and Mark Ronson (Lily Allen), Winehouse's tales come alive in a stirring mélange of Muscle Shoals and Funk Brothers-driven Motown. Thematically, Winehouse wanders through girl-group territory, making explicit the anguish of heartache that the Supremes only ever hinted at; her blunt lyrics are like a foreign language to that era. It's at first jarring to hear Winehouse twist the sweet sound of, say, a Mary Wells song on "Me and Mr. Jones" with a voice soaked in gin and smoke: "What kind of fuckery are we? / Nowadays you don't mean dick to me". But Winehouse is sincere: this particular marriage of words and music mirrors the bittersweet dichotomy that sometimes frames real relationships. Like it or not, Amy Winehouse might just be singing about you.
While the album's first singles, "Rehab" and "You Know I'm No Good", are essential listening, it's the three songs at the album's center that make Back to Black an artistic success worth keeping on repeat. The ebb and flow of longing one experiences in a break-up is the tear-stained thread that connects "Love is a Losing Game", "Tears Dry On Their Own", and "Wake Up Alone". "Love is a Losing Game" is the beginning of the end. It's imbued with Winehouse's resigned realization that a relationship is destined to fizzle. For the first time on the album, she forsakes her brave, don't-fuck-with-me front and faces the "futile odds" with a nuanced sensitivity. This kind of approach saves Winehouse from being a one-note trouble (wo)man, while the superb singles do quite the opposite.
"Tears Dry on Their Own" recasts the spirit of its instantly recognizable source material, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (the original Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell duet). Sampling a beloved soul classic is usually a dangerous move, but when executed with strokes of innovation, the results give sampling a good name. Here, the song is an ode to Winehouse's independence, even though her heart is broken. In contrast to Marvin Gaye's soaring vocal, Winehouse flips the melody in the verses so that it descends rather than ascends:
I don't understand
why do I stress the man?
when there are so many bigger things at hand
We could have never had it all
we had to hit a wall
so this in-ev-it-able withdrawal
The way she spits out the syllables of inevitable conveys a forced admission that she might be better off without her man. She's walking away (i.e., independence) but looking over her shoulder (i.e., longing) too. Raise your hand if you can relate.
"Wake Up Alone" dissects the low of going through the day without someone who was a constant presence. Winehouse keeps herself busy, trying not to concern herself with loneliness. "I stay up, clean the house / at least I'm not drinking / run around just so I don't have to / think about thinking". "Wake Up Alone" brings Winehouse "back to black", if you will. The darkness of ill-fated love consumes her.
Winehouse certainly has the blessing of many muses, since high-points abound on Back to Black. Each song is like a three-minute vignette of romantic angst: she revels in her own infidelity on the sizzling "You Know I'm No Good" and warns a polyamorous lover about his ways on the ska-inflected "Just Friends" ("The guilt will kill you if she don't first"). The riveting title track recalls the foreboding atmosphere of the Shangri-La's "Remember (Walking in the Sand)", and "He Can Only Hold Her" boasts some of Winehouse's best singing on the album.
Only a few tracks preclude Back to Black from being uniformly excellent. "Some Unholy War" seems to drag well beyond its 2:22 duration, while "Addicted" is a contrived effort to glamorize the artist's much-publicized wayward proclivities. Closing the album is Hot Chip's remix of "Rehab". It's completely unnecessary and I'm hesitant to even consider it an "official" part of the album ... but there it is.
No doubt Amy Winehouse already has another album's worth of stories to share. Hopefully, she'll try on a few different styles before her unique appropriation of '60s soul becomes rote, but the fact that Back to Black is markedly different from Frank indicates a rabid desire to grow with each release. For the time being, Back to Black finds a fearless artist saying whatever she damn well pleases. And we best listen up.