When the greatest break-up albums are spoken of, Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back to Black’ never fails to get significant consideration. With lyrics that punch you in the face and melodies inspired by some of the greatest soul musicians, Winehouse achieved not only what she herself envisioned as her follow up to her debut ‘Frank’ but also a body of musical excellence bound for the history books.
Back in 2006, when Winehouse was recording the album, she was in the midst of a break-up with her long-time-lover, Blake Fielder-Civil. It’s this break-up from which Winehouse draws the bulk of her inspiration for ‘Back to Black.’ She went into the studio with producer, Mark Ronson, who would ultimately provide guidance for the retro 60s sound of the album. Ronson met Winehouse in New York, where she had travelled to record the album, and the pair struck an immediate working relationship; completing five of the album’s songs in four days. It was Ronson who came up with the piano riff to the album’s title track, after hearing about the music Winehouse wanted to emulate, and also him that brought the Dap Kings into the studio to provide the instrumentation for the album. It was the Dap Kings who would ultimately craft the deep and soulful 60s sound that backed up Winehouse on the record.
As a result, the album is sonically close to perfection. The driving beats are borrowed heavily from the 1950s and 60s, with songs like ‘Tears dry on their own’ reminiscent of early Motown (with a parallel often being drawn to Marvin Gaye’s and Tammi Terrell’s ‘Ain’t no mountain high enough’) and ‘Rehab’ sounding like something Phil Spector would produce with the Ronettes. The instrumentation of the Dap Kings displays such musical depth and often energises the sound; this is showcased on tracks like ‘Me and Mr Jones’ and ‘Addicted’,(the former of which is a nod to Billy Paul)
The backing vocals throughout the album further create a 60s feel, adding character and soul to the overall sound. ‘Some Unholy War’, for example, would not be the track it is without the backing vocal there to give the track substance. The Dap Kings are able to take it down a notch at various points as well, letting Winehouse’s vocal guide the sound but still adding a deep and soulful feeling. This is best exemplified in the track ‘Wake up Alone’ in which a jazz chord progression backed by subtle percussion take a backseat and let Winehouse’s lyrics shine through.
And what lyrics they are; seemingly reaching out from the speakers and touching your soul. They comment on the human condition, provoking feelings of sadness, heartache and loss. Winehouse’s ability to write such captivating and emotive lyrics was first showcased in ‘Frank’ but here, due to her personal troubles at the time of recording, they are more powerfully raw and meaningful than we had seen them before. Stand outs include the album’s title track, which spits in the direction of her ex partner with an almost tangible determination. The song also looks inward, in that Winehouse can see where the brake-up will take her. “My odds are stacked that I go back to black” she sings, showing how vulnerable she is at the time of writing, like she knew the relationship would be her undoing. Winehouse’s self reflection is a recurring theme, featured in a number of the album’s tracks including ‘You Know I’m no Good’ and the truly heart wrenching ‘Love is a losing game.’ At times it feels like Winehouse is singing into a mirror, telling herself not to fall into the holes that she knows she ultimately will. These themes now provoke feelings of sadness as, with the benefit of hindsight, we see how the very things Winehouse feared would undo her, tragically did.
‘Back to Black’ will go down in history as one of the greatest and most emotionally poignant records ever made. It’s vintage, soulful sound, coupled with some of the best lyricism of the century thus far, pushes the record head and shoulders above other music that was being released around the time. The album is, at the time of writing this, the second best selling album in the UK this century. In my eyes, the music Winehouse left behind remains unmatched in terms of her ability to hold the hearts of her listeners in the palm of her hand. Artists like Amy Winehouse only come along once in a generation, the fact that she passed away nine years ago and is still one of the country’s most celebrated female musicians tells you all you need to know about her ability.
She also made an impact bigger than her music. She paved the way for many female artists that followed in her footsteps, acting like the trailblazer for years to come. Artists like Adele, Duffy and Florence and the Machine were amongst the first to walk the path she carved and there will be many, many more to follow. She is to the modern female singer what Nirvana are to the modern rock band.