Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is 'Back To Black' by Amy Winehouse.
"They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no, no, no" sings Amy Winehouse in Rehab, the opening track of what would be her final album 'Back to Black'. Considering the way that she tragically died 5 years later, the irony here is lost on no-one. The succeeding songs on the album disclose Winehouse’s excessive use of drugs and alcohol, as well as the details of a turbulent marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil. In hindsight, it seems that going to rehab might not have been such a bad idea after all.
There are very few artists that can be credited as contributors to the shaping of a genre in its whole. When it comes to blues and jazz artists, there have been few since Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole who have shaken the very core of jazz and blues music to the point of reimaging its characteristics and facets. This genre of music has always been an efficacious vehicle through which contentious beliefs and opinions could be propagated, particularly in times of cultural and political upheaval and oppression. Blues and jazz artists characteristically show a total disregard for hegemonic opinions and conventions. 1920s America was a country that prided itself on its upkeep of traditions, yet Bessie Smith challenged these by discussing culturally controversial themes in her music, such as sexual abuse and homosexuality.
While 'Back to Black' doesn’t tackle any major political issues, the album grants us an insight into a serious mental illness and substance abuse, something that both Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday could have related to. Mental health was a topic that didn’t garner enough attention in early '00s, yet Winehouse brought the topic to the top of the music charts with this album. It was marketed as an album about heartbreak, however, it represents so much more than that. 'Back to Black' delineates a despondent woman battling depression, substance/alcohol dependency and loneliness. Sure, there is a plethora of songs on Spotify about drugs and alcohol use, but few capture what it is really like to be trapped in the thralls of addiction like 'Back to Black' does. She made no effort to conceal her excessive drug and alcohol abuse in this album, which, in the end, were to be her downfall.
'Back to Black' saw release in October 2006. Winehouse represented a new brand of British pop in her brazen, unabashed mannerisms and larger than life personality. Thanks to the album’s producer, pop mogul Mark Ronson, 'Back to Black' catapulted Winehouse into the pop stratosphere while retaining the blues and jazz remnants that she was already famous for. Amongst a myriad of bubble-gum pop singers, Winehouse was a symbol of defiance and dissent in her refusal to conform to popular music conventions. Ronson introduced motown and funk influences to Winehouse’s music, genres that she had previously never explored. This eclectic combination of influences leant themselves to the creation of a sonically unique but cohesive album. In a review of 'Back to Black', the New Yorker stated that the album’s “inflections and phonemes don’t add up to any known style”.
Ronson spoke of Winehouse’s inherent song-writing talents with TIME Magazine shortly after her death, and how she “had an innate ability to come up with the insta-classic - a lyric or song title that you’ve never heard before but is so perfect and timeless that it feels as though it must have been around since the birth of pop music”. This talent is evident in some of 'Back to Black'’s gems such as the bittersweet Tears Dry On Their Own and the anguished Love Is A Losing Game. The latter is a particularly heart-breaking ballad, rich in lyrical metaphors and instrumentally sparse enough to allow Winehouse’s voice to be the centrepiece, “for you I was the flame, love is a losing game, five story fire as you came”.
In comparison, You Know That I’m No Good sees Winehouse speak about her lover in overtly sexual terms, “I'm in the tub, you on the seat, lick your lips as I soap my feet”. In the music video for the song, Winehouse bats her heavily made up eyes alluringly at men but then swats them with red fingernails with they make an advance.
Perhaps the most compelling song on the album is the ubiquitous title track Back to Black. The song, complete with a Wurlitzer organ and a full string section, was written about her ex-husband returning to a former lover. It’s in songs like this that Winehouse is at her best, albeit the pain that is so evident in the music. The song merges Supremes-esque doo-wop with modern soul. It serves as an acute album title - contained within it is a lot of what the whole album encompasses; regret, loneliness, sex, drugs and alcohol. “I tread a troubled track, my odds are stacked, I'll go back to black” she croons in the first verse. These lyrics are worth noting, for their retrospective quality. Indeed, she did tread a troubled track, and it seemed no matter what (seemingly small) efforts were made around her to keep her from harm, the odds were always stacked against her.
There is a scene in the Asif Kapadia directed documentary Amy that shows the recording session in which Back to Black was written. Focussed, she records her first vocal take for the song and reads the lyrics that she has just written off a sheet of paper, unknown to her the impact that those lyrics would have once released. She is sober and in control, not yet caught in the grasp of the addictions that would lead to her demise.
Her struggle with these addictions is most prominent in Wake Up Alone. She discusses what she does to keep busy and distract herself from thinking about her ex-lover, “I stay up, clean the house, at least I'm not drinking”. Despite their divorce, her commitment to Blake-Fielder Civil was long-lasting and unyielding, “he's fierce in my dreams, seizing my guts, he floods me with dread… and I wake up alone”. The song is delicate but resolute, Winehouse is a vulnerable protagonist helplessly bound to the clutches of Civil’s love.
'Back to Black' would go on to win 5 Grammy Awards, though she couldn’t attend the ceremony because she failed the drug test to enter America. 11 years on, the album’s influence is still being felt. Adele, Lana Del Rey and Paloma Faith are just some of the artists that cite Winehouse as a key influence in their writing and music. The 11 songs on 'Back to Black' were an exquisite response to a toxic relationship and a detrimental struggle with addiction. While I believe that the singer should be remembered as a trail-blazing artist rather than a tragedy, it’s hard not to feel guilty for taking enjoyment from the evident pain and anguish in 'Back to Black'. Amy Winehouse played a losing game, indeed.