‘Back To Black’ 10 Years Later: Amy Winehouse’s Definitive Album is Also a Bittersweet Swan Song
The life of Amy Winehouse is one that will likely fascinate, confound, inspire and confuse fans for generations. The young woman with the big voice and the big hair had always been one to march to her own drum and she wore her nonconformity proudly.
"I wasn’t a tearaway but I definitely wouldn’t conform to anything,” she said in 2004, in an interview with The Independent while her debut album Frank was charting in the U.K.
“I was bad with authority and didn’t want to be told what to do. I’ve never been an idiot – I was a smart girl but I’d do stupid things like go around Asda and nick stuff because my friends told me to. I was a good girl as a teenager.“
That good girl was also a remarkably gifted talent. Released when Amy was just 18, Frank had been a much buzzed-about album that barely registered in America. Her second album would become one of the most acclaimed of the decade, however. Back To Black was released October 27, 2006 and it became a standard-bearer for Winehouse and her contemporaries. Drenched in 60s pop and soul, it made Amy Winehouse one of the biggest stars in the world and affirmed a 60s-retro explosion that took over the landscape of 2000s pop music for about two years.
“I just like the old stuff. It’s all quite dramatic and atmospheric," she would tell SPIN in 2007, just as her star was peaking. "You’d have an entire story in a song. I never listen to, like, white music — I couldn’t sing you a Zeppelin or Floyd song.”
"I'm not a jazz girl any more," Winehouse said to The Sun back in 2006. "These songs are more accessible than the tracks on Frank, as jazz is quite elitist. People didn't get it. I've been listening to '60s bands and girl groups and it came out in the writing on Back To Black."
The 60s resurgence that happened circa 2007 seems like a fleeting pop moment now; but there was brilliant music being recorded by the likes of Raphael Saadiq and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. But the most indelible album of that period is unquestionably Back To Black. Against a sonic backdrop that recalled the glory days of girl groups like the Ronettes and Hitsville-era Motown, Winehouse unleashed the pain, humor, anger and vulnerability that would make her one of the most talked-about artists in the world. It was an era-defining piece of work.
It was also an obviously-personalized document of her tumultuous relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil. The man who has become a nefarious figure in Winehouse's tragic history was, in 2006, an ex-boyfriend whom she wasn't sure she was completely over. Their relationship up to that point had served as the catalyst for much of the angst-ridden lyricism on Back To Black. And Winehouse told PAPER magazine in 2007 that he'd had to hear them before the rest of the world.
"The first time he saw me play -- obviously the songs are all about him -- he just kind of sat there," Amy recalled. "I said, 'You alright, Blake?' And he goes, 'Yeah, sorry, it's all a bit much.' The thing is, though, on my last record, I was singing all these songs that were like, 'Yeah, fuck you, that's right.' With this album, my attitude has changed. This time it's not like, 'You broke my heart; I hate you.' It's more like, 'It's a shame it didn't work out.'"
Winehouse's gorgeously husky-hued voiced and brazen lyrics resonated with legions of listeners. It was her nakedness that made her music so powerful, and it was her talent that made it all seem so natural and unpretentious. Singing about an ex who "Kept his dick wet, with his same ol' safe bet," on the title track, her voice never sounded more lived-in and her perspective never felt more clear-eyed in it's heartbroken matter-of-fact tone. "Wake Up Alone" sounds like it was recorded in the middle of the night; equal parts Righteous Brothers and Lauryn Hill. It's just one highlight on an album that is full of them.
“I write songs because I’m fucked in the head and need to get something good out of something bad,” Winehouse said in that '07 SPIN cover story. “There were things I couldn’t say to [Blake], but I never thought, ‘This would be a great song. Who’s going to hear this?’ I thought, ‘Fuck, I’m going to die if I don’t write down the way I feel. I’m going to fucking do myself in.’ It’s nothing spectacular.”
She and Blake had met in 2005 and they had been on-and-off for a year--both engaging in rampant infidelities, often with the intention of enraging the others. They would intensify their troubled love affair in 2007 when they married in Florida that spring. Amy's father, the equally-scrutable Mitch Winehouse, wrote that Fielder was “the biggest low-life scumbag that God ever put breath into" and Fielder admitted back in 2008 that he was the person who'd turned Amy onto heroin. Even prior to that, alcohol had been a pervasive part of Winehouse's life with Civil. And her addictions famously led to the intervention that would inspire her biggest hit.
"Rehab" was released to radio in late 2006 and hit America in early 2007; and the song became one of the most inescapable tracks of the decade.
"Me and Mark Ronson were just walking down the street in SoHo," Winehouse recalled to PAPER. "And I sang the hook. I sang it as a joke. Mark started laughing, saying, 'That's so funny. That's so funny, Amy. Whose song is that, man?' I told him, 'I just wrote it off the top of my head. I was just joking.' And he said, 'It would be so cool if you had a whole song about rehab.' I said, 'Well, I could write it right now. Let's go to the studio.' And that was it."
"Rehab" became the ubiquitous hit, but every song on Back to Black seemed to command attention from critics and fans. "Tears Dry On Their Own" is a stellar pastiche of Motown melodicism by way of a repurposed "Ain't No Motown High Enough." And "You Know I'm No Good" is truly one of the strongest singles of the era; with it's Shirley Bassey-esque stomp and a winning late addition guest verse from Ghostface Killah. The best moments on Back to Black brought the classicism of 60s pop into a contemporary roughneck setting. Winehouse sounded just as at home with the Chiffons as she did with the Notorious B.I.G.
She'd worked with Salaam Remi for Frank; and he was present for four tracks on Back to Black--alongside Mark Ronson.
"With most singers, you record seven or eight takes," Ronson said in last year's acclaimed-but-gutwrenching documentary Amy. "Her vocals were so great and flawless, but they were real jazzy — you just had to pick one, and you'd be like, 'Fuck! Well, am I robbing the world of ever hearing this other brilliant experience?' It was almost like you didn't want her to do too many [takes] because then the choice would be impossible for which one to take."
Winehouse's work ethic and commitment to her art informed everything she recorded in her all-too-brief career. Despite Back To Black's reverence for 60s soul, Winehouse never truly forsake jazz as her greatest inspiration and as a standard to which she strived. Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan were benchmarks for how she wanted to be perceived--even after the success of Back To Black, she was devoted to jazz and artists like Tony Bennett, whom she recorded with months before she died in 2011. Throughout the experience, Winehouse's nervousness belied an adulation for Bennett and what he represents musically; constantly checking herself to make sure she wasn't making mistakes in front of the legend.
“I’m my own worst critic,” she said to the Telegraph at the time. “And if I don’t pull off what I think I wanted to do in my head, then I won’t be a happy girl.”
“I’m not a natural born performer. I’m a natural singer, but I’m quite shy, really.”
Back To Black made Amy Winehouse a star, but it also brought her problems into sharp focus and exacerbated them greatly. Once she was famous, it was impossible for her to face any of the demons that had been chasing her. A heady mix of insecurities, exploitative sycophants and the glare of the spotlight sent Winehouse into a tailspin from which she would never recover.
Back To Black became the final official album of her lifetime. After Amy Winehouse was found dead at age 27 in the summer of 2011, it became an ode to all of her heartache adn talent; a melancholy masterpiece that seemed to be the start of something big, but became the finale for a life lived too hard and too fast. She told Guardian that her greatest fear was "dying old or never meeting Tony Bennett." In a bit of pained irony, neither fear ever came to be a reality.
It's easy to romanticize the tortured artist who dies young. Amy Winehouse's pain wasn't as poetic as it was tragic--made even moreso by her attempts to right herself in the months before she died of alcohol poisoning. She left the world with so much in the way of her amazing art. So while we mourn her loss and the way it unfolded garishly in the public eye; we also celebrate her brilliance. Amy Winehouse was one of the greats of a generation. Even if she never truly saw herself that way.
"I've done a record I'm proud of," she told MTV in January 2007. "I like it a lot. And if other people like it...cool."