Today marks the 10-year anniversary of Amy Winehouse’s sophomore album – without a doubt the one that made the whole world aware of her. 2003’s Frank had already showed a promising voice in the contemporary world of soul and jazz; and even though the album had its fair share of minor hits in the UK, it still relied a bit too much on its influences. The cover songs in particular felt like Amy was not bringing enough of her own personality to the table. All of this was rectified with Back to Black though, where all the elements – her near-total control over the writing, a more organic sound, a better use of her chocolatey voice, perhaps even the new image portrayed on the cover – work together towards creating something totally unique.
The departure paid off as the album managed to win over not only the UK crowd, but also the US one. Back to Black spawned multiple singles that charted and made Winehouse the first British female to win 5 Grammys. Her down-to-earth approach to music was seen as a fresh breath of air in the world of pop artifice, inspiring a whole new generation of artists such as Adele to go down similar routes. And yet, in my opinion, the album still doesn’t receive the praise that I think it so richly deserves. Or rather, in the particular way I feel it deserves it.
Let me explain. When I hear a verse like “I cried for you on the kitchen floor” from You Know I’m No Good – which by the way actually happened to Amy after breaking up with her boyfriend – I don’t just think that she’s different from her contemporary pop stars. What I hear is a highly confessional, deeply sincere bit of her personal life shared for us to resonate. To feel what she was going through, to feel her pain. We’ve all been in the heartbroken situation she describes in Wake Up Alone, trying her best to stay busy during the day so thoughts of him won’t haunt her. Doing mundane activities such as cleaning the house in order to stay away from the bottle. The chest pains, the dreams, and eventually the waking up alone. It’s all an incredibly accurate portrayal of the post-breakup loneliness.
Even the big hit that is Rehab doesn’t come off as any less personal. Sure, the chorus would become a premise for all those lame jokes, but there’s also lyrics like “There’s nothing you can teach me / That I can’t learn from Mr. Hathaway” – referring to the famous soul singer Donny Hathaway and thus placing the power of music above everything. Or the truly heartbreaking “I don’t ever wanna drink again / I just, ooh, just need a friend”, making the whole song sound like something you’d put on at 2AM on a depressing night as opposed to dancing to it at your local club. It’s not just the lyrics that convey this message though – listen to how her voice switches from the quiet resignation of Love Is a Losing Game, to the gloom of Back to Black, or the angry attacks of Me & Mr. Jones and Addicted.
Now I can understand why some would complain about the production sounding too retro, especially in the case of Tears Dry on Their Own where the melodies and arrangements are directly lifted from Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. But for me, Back to Black has always been more about what Amy herself brings to those old sounds, and the heart-on-the-sleeve character of the lyrics nearly pushes the album into the singer-songwriter territory. If Frank was still treading water, then this is her very own Blood on the Tracks, her Blue, or her Sea Change, and 10 years’ worth of new artists and new scenes have not made it any less powerful.
Categories: Album Reviews