Barbaric blues: Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black ★★★★★

March 25 2021, by Patrick Maxwell

A special one, Amy Winehouse. As, beyond all the drug-ridden raves, animosity-blotched relationships and alcohol-fuelled chicanes which got her such a disreputable reputation for the fans who so lapped her up, her music was no less distinct. The combination was, undeniably, magnetic: that of the hedonistic lifestyle drawn inexorably into the equally Bacchanalian music; the riveting, jarring chords voicing the same dissonance in life which was brought so pointedly, unavoidably forwards in the songs. Yet Winehouse was no transient artist, and her music belongs not simply to the clichéd world of the pop charts and the long reams of banal love ballads. Of course, there’s an unmistakable originality to her music, but this can cover over the strong jazz roots from which it sprung, and which pervade every bar of each track.

Her fame came, in the short time it could, from the 2006 album Back to Black. It made her the ultimate doyen of the wannabe rebel; the harsh, rocking beats, fused with the lingering jazz harmonies which spruce up the standard pop sequences created an album which launched an idol onto a stage which was rather short of such musical honesty. For it would be hard to claim the mid-Noughties to be the height of a musical Nirvana, populated as the Charts were with Dizzee Rascal and the Sugababes. Winehouse’s voice, both musically and vocally, offered something not unseen or unheard, but certainly ear-crushingly original.

And what a voice. Reminiscent as it was of Philip Larkin’s description of Bob Dylan’s ‘cawing, derisive’ tones, Winehouse screeched, screamed, twanged and titillated around her tawdry tessitura with every bar. It’s there at the opening of the title song, trailing lazily around the same note before finally obeying the harmony. The rabid syncopation, the brailing drawl, the lyrical nonchalance, all there from the start. The harmony is simple: a straightforward progression around the minor, heading to the magnificent hold-up at the dominant seventh. The second melody, where a strong line gives some semblance of traditionality, weaves intricately between the clashes as Winehouse claws at her having ‘Died a hundred times / You go back to her / And I go back to black.’ Nothing much special about the lyrics, it must be said, poignant as they are about her own ‘troubled track’ of a life.

There’s little usual about the opening track, though, throwing the listener as it does into the pounding world of the boisterous jazz band and the ululating reverberations of Winehouse’s pleadings. Rehab is relentlessly uplifting just as much as it is bitterly piercing; the jovial, rollicking turns of the brass countered by the boorish arpeggios of the strings accompanying Winehouse as she spews her vitriol to all those all who told her to go to give the drugs a rest. ‘I don’t ever want to drink again’, she claims, having but lines earlier reminded us how she makes sure to ‘always keep a bottle near’. Irreverent doesn’t really cover it with Winehouse, as the lyrical onslaught is matched only by the energy of the bass and the band’s flashing chords.

Yet the best track of the album comes later. Love Is A Losing Game has a good claim to being amongst the greatest track of its type, with the rocking throes of dissonance building the climax of subdued genius of the song’s climax; chord building on chord to the smoky reverie of ‘the final frame’ as ‘memories mar my mind’. The song bears a powerful imagery, carrying the listener along with the melody while edging inexorably forwards with such insouciant chords. Labelling this number as Winehouse at her best almost misses the point, since the song carries more breadth than as simply a typification of her own brand of soul music. For many, Winehouse was always much more than the regular soul singer, not least because of the infusion of the iconoclastic idolism which made her musical image so the more alluring.

Back to Black must take some kind of place in the pantheon of pop albums, at least during this century, not least because of its originality which goes beyond the vapid offerings which parade as artistic endeavour rather often. That the world of a dusty, bustling, troubled Camden street is so wonderfully evoked, amidst all the tragic consequences of Winehouse’s self-abuse, makes the album more than simply a vivid thrash through an embittered former lover’s recycled list of grievances. The tragedy is never lessened by the fact that it was this album which cast the singer to the fame which would further her own addictions, and then make her the real one who made Tears Dry on Their Own.


Patrick Maxwell, Fifth