100 Essential Albums: #94 — Back to Black by Amy Winehouse (2006)
I fall in love every day. Not with people, but with situations.
— Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse’s stratospheric talent as a singer-songwriter-performer was overshadowed by her often scandalous behavior and trainwreck of a personal life, which led to her untimely death at age 27. Drug abuse had been an ongoing problem for Winehouse, but her official cause of death in 2011 was alcohol poisoning. Some contend the constant 24/7 paparazzi harassment and tabloid-inflamed tensions really killed her.
The British soul singer was the proverbial candle lit at both ends, burning ever so brightly for too short a time, which extinguished abruptly but not unexpectedly before she achieved what might have been a lengthy and legendary career.
Winehouse had everything going for her, career-wise. Natural talent. Charisma. A distinctive look. Perhaps most impressive of all — she radiated instantaneous musical adaptability. Winehouse could sing and perform virtually any style of song and yet make it seem all her own. She was a master of her craft, melding an all-too-familiar retro-R&B sound combined with an ultramodern and eclectic vocal signature. Her sense of timing and phrasing was impeccable. She made singing look and seem easy, because for her — it was easy. It was living and dealing with her overnight superstardom that turned out to be hard.
The London-born artist, so easily recognizable for her beehive hairdo and evocative eyeliner that spawned a fashion wave of copycats, was often at her best when singing live and even better with the simple strumming accompaniment of an acoustic guitar. She could command an entire arena packed with 20,000 screaming fans with a whisper but appeared most comfortable when stripped bare of the bright lights with nothing more a poignant song and her lone voice to fill a room. She personified an “I don’t give a fuck attitude,” a constant strain that’s pervasive throughout all her music, but also revealed inner sensitivity and deep vulnerability that made her someone with whom the audience could identify, and perhaps even see a bit of themselves. Her best songs were about self-doubt and lost love.
Winehouse was a monstrous talent who, like so many before her, died way too young. We can only dream what else she might have done had she been with us longer.
Winehouse recorded only two studio albums. Both are worth a listen. However, her second album, Back to Black, was a far more mature compilation. It certainly contains a more diverse collection of styles than her debut. Frank, released in 2003. Frank had been a jazz-infused album paying homage to Sinatra, one of Winehouse’s strongest musical influences. Her follow-up release intended to focus on the distinctive style and unique sound of the famous girl groups of the early 1960’s. And, she pulled this off magnificently.
Yet, Winehouse never aims for sweet nostalgia on Back to Black. There are no musty cover ballads in this unique compilation of songs. Winehouse wrote virtually every note and lyric in the 11-song collection, which clocks in at 35 minutes in duration. While she may have intended to honor the girl groups she revered, it’s Winehouse herself who ends up as rightful heir to the throne.
Predictably, several hit singles spawned from Back to Black, which instantly reignited her appeal as a popular live act. Indeed, Winehouse spent most of her seven-year career trapped in the beam of a stage spotlight giving an unrelenting series of live performances, rather than dedicating much time to her craft in the studio. Although her live act later hatched the release of I Told You I Was Trouble: Live in London, which came out in 2007, one wishes that instead, she’d spent far more time writing and recording.
Consider this somewhat impromptu vocal demonstration on a British radio program, with only a simple guitar as accompaniment. Performing “Valerie,” from the previous album, it’s a testament to Winehouse’s innate sense of timing:
Back to Black starts with “Rehab,” an autobiographical tease that’s become her signature song. Written and performed uptempo as a mockery of her highly-publicized bouts with drug addiction and alcohol abuse, “Rehab” foreshadows the deeply personal angst to come throughout the remainder of the album.
“You Know I’m No Good,” is the album’s second track (listen above). This 1-2 punch with “Rehab” as the opener works perfectly as Winehouse’s self-confessional. She acknowledges needing help and expresses doubts about her own self-worth. The bluesy brass accompaniment and riveting bass lines fit perfectly with Winehouse’s taunting lyric.
Put on a blindfold and listen to “Me and Mr. Jones,” the third track. Winehouse sounds just like Aretha Franklin in her prime performing a song written as the female answer to Billy Paul’s 1972 classic, “Me and Mrs. Jones.”
Other highlights from Back to Black include the familiar title track and “Tears Dry on Their Own.” But the highlight may be the self-professed fatalism expressed in “Love is a Losing Game.”
Winehouse made some excellent choices when it came to her music. Unfortunately, she failed to exercise the same discretion in her personal relationships, which were riddled with negative influences upon her life and career. Burned out and cynical by the time Back to Black was released to rave critical reviews and massive worldwide acclaim, here’s Winehouse’s video to her deeply introspective song “Love is a Losing Game.”
After her death, record companies were eager to find the “next Amy Winehouse.” Adele and Duffy are two artists often compared to Winehouse for their distinctive vocal qualities and natural abilities to improve upon familiar sounds. Numerous popular female singers today cite Winehouse as a profound influence on their music. Spin magazine noted that Winehouse was the “Nirvana moment” for the next generation of female musicians.
No doubt, Winehouse always insisted on doing things her own way. Here’s a song rarely covered by other artists, but performed beautifully live in-studio by Winehouse on a BBC broadcast. She takes The Beatles’ classic “All My Loving,” not exactly the ideal tune for a solo female to cover, and manages to create quite a different interpretation of the familiar ballad. Give Winehouse’s version of “All My Loving” a listen here:
Note: This is the latest segment in a series of reviews and retrospectives of my “100 Essential Albums,” which will be posted here regularly on my website over the next year, or so. Previous selections include:
#97: Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back — by Frank Sinatra (1973)
#96: The Doors — by The Doors (1967)
#95: Ellington at Newport — by Duke Ellington (1956)