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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Amy Winehouse: Back To Black


1) Rehab; 2) You Know I'm No Good; 3) Me & Mr. Jones; 4) Just Friends; 5) Back To Black; 6) Love Is A Losing Game; 7) Tears Dry On Their Own; 8) Wake Up Alone; 9) Some Unholy War; 10) He Can Only Hold Her; 11) Ad­dicted; 12) Valerie.

Impressive! The overall style hasn't changed (unless you count the visual transformation — by this time, covered with a mix of tattoos and heroin marks and enriched with a hairstyle that would topple the 3rd Marine Division, Amy had begun to look like the Bride of Sauron), but almost all the flaws that made Frank tedious have been remedied. For one thing, the album is much shorter, at the expense of cutting down on the songs' average length — a marvelous decision, if you ask me; this way, they really feel like concise, laconic songs rather than space-taking boring grooves that stretch out like bad toffee just because everyone else is doing this.

For another thing, she is no longer setting herself up as a 21st century reincarnation of Billie Ho­liday (except for, perhaps, the nice trifle of 'Love Is A Losing Game'). This is a strongly jazz and R'n'B influenced pop album that follows no one particular idol and no one particular style. It does not sound self-consciously retro (it acknowledges all its influences, but does not make an effort to sound exactly like any of them), and it does not sound self-consciously modernistic; it's already got the potential to endure because it's so wonderfully timeless.

Also, it may be just a crazy thought, but it seems like she is reducing the flashiness of her voice, as if intentionally driving home the idea that the main selling point of Back To Black should be the songs and not the "Vocal Diva" visiting card. When the song requires her to stretch out, she stretches out, but there is practically no scatting, no wailing in between verses, no trying to reach out for the harder ranges — even though her voice is still not a favourite of mine, she is quite con­sistently listenable throughout.

Finally, no one could any longer accuse Amy of cultivating self-pity. The album rode on the success of the 'Rehab' single, an autobiographical tale of personal problems, but it is quite obvio­usly ironic, and its melody, borrowing some bouncy energy from the classic Motown style, is downright cheerful — lead singles have to be cheerful, after all. Much darker is the title track, but it is also more detached; after all, not all sad songs are supposed to reflect the artist's own perso­nality, and Amy's jazzy imploration — 'you go on back to her, and I'll go back to black' — could be about me and you if we wanted it to be so. Wonderful arrangement, as well, with these trebly guitars and strings and bells and whatever.

Or take 'You Know I'm No Good', a song that's even more radio-friendly than 'Rehab' (if only for having the tightest rhythm section on the album). This, too, may be deeply personal, but she sings it closer in style to the jazz queens of old, never overemoting so that there be space left for the mystery of it — just how close is the relationship between the lyrics and the singer? It's a cold and faraway sound, but also catchy, and when the horns come in to announce the bridge, they catch that mystery virus from the singer and end up sounding just as puzzling. It is quite ever so refreshing to see a "mainstream" tune bring back the old intrigue.

The album is not a hundred percent consistent — I sense a minor drop of quality towards the second half — but there's really nothing bad on it; even the songs that are not memorable still manage to sound nice. The happiness of it all is in realizing that after an album like Frank, most artists would have gone soft and trendy, but this particular artist quite obviously knows what she likes and she's going to do it no matter what — and she's got such a strong personality that she can actually make the majority pander to her will instead of vice versa. And this means that, as long as we have people like Amy — which, given her drug problems, may unfortunately not be too long — there is still a whiff of hope for the mainstream, and a drop of good taste.

So, major thumbs up from the intellectual department and minor same from the heart (major same would never come from the heart because that's not the kind of voice the heart can be truly happy about). Sidenote: Back To Black sometimes comes in a "deluxe" version that adds a se­cond CD worth of demos and covers of Amy's old favs like 'Cupid' and 'To Know Him Is To Love Him'. Only for serious fans, and only on the condition no one of them will be foolish enough to say that 'Amy blows Sam Cooke away' or some other crazy thing like that.


  1. I guess saying no, no, no to rehab wasn't such a good idea. Poor Amy...

  2. Like Doherty, Amy's recreational shenanigans totally eclipsed her musical contributions while she was alive. And with her death, comes a whole new appraisal of her work in light of the tragedy. I'm cynical about the bandwagon jumping to say the least.

    Still, the record stands up. She wasn't a genius, but she offered us a healthy helping of inborn, soulful talent at a time when that was a rare thing indeed. Mark Ronson (no relation to the late Mick) deserves some recognition for his production and arrangements. An undeniably talented individual himself, they made a great team.