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Amy Winehouse - Back to Black Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 July 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    7
sound:    9
released:    2007
label:    Island
reviewer:    Matt Fink

ImageThough their legacies loom over popular music and continue to define their respective eras, today it seems utterly contradictory that personalities as big as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley hardly produced a self-penned song between them. First and foremost, they were personalities and performers, not craftsman, and it’s a true testament to their skills as interpreters of other people’s songs that so many listeners believed they had lived the songs they sung. But for those of us raised after Bob Dylan and the Beatles entered the pop music milieu, championing the idea that an artist could make autobiographical art – confessional music that wasn’t designed only to sate the cravings of the masses – the persona of the songwriter plays a role in the overall enjoyment of an artist’s work. From John Lennon baring his soul in the psychodrama of 1970’s Plastic Ono Band to Kurt Cobain expressing his frustrations with fame on In Utero, listeners now scan liner notes looking for insights into the songwriter’s frame of mind and personal experience. Some artists are every bit as interesting as their art, offering the fantasy of escaping into their personal dramas to the listeners, from the safety of their iPods. Amy Winehouse is one of those artists.

Sporting a beehive, exaggerated eyelashes and garish miniskirts, Winehouse makes little effort to conceal her affection for ‘60s girl group pop and the associated imagery. In fact, she absolutely revels in it, never missing a chance to draw a visual parallel to Diana Ross and a generation of R&B hit-makers. A chart-topping pop star and tabloid regular in her native Britain, she has earned as many headlines for her bouts of public drunkenness, suspected mental problems and speculation over eating disorders as she has for her retro-pop pastiche. As such, she has split the critical community between those who see her as nothing but a moderately talented opportunist making the most out of her free publicity and those who consider her a genuinely talented performer who channels her personal drama into a distinctive creative personality. Whatever the case, Back to Black is a fascinating case study in the dynamics of creative ambition and personal histrionics.
Setting the pace for the album with her best and most vividly autobiographical song, “Rehab” is three minutes of pure pop bliss, with a lush wave of horns, strings and bells reanimating Phil Spector’s wall of sound for a new generation. “I ain’t got the time/and if my daddy thinks I’m fine/just try to make me go to rehab/I won’t go” she sings over a distorted electric piano, the Cockney swagger in her voice forming a figurative finger wag to let you just how adamant she is that she’d rather stay at home and listen to Ray Charles than spend 70 days in treatment. “I don’t ever want to drink again/I just need a friend” she continues, explaining that it would be disingenuous for her to go to rehab and come out clean when she knows that her relationship troubles are the root of her binge drinking. For someone whose reputation was largely made from a few drunken performances on television, it’s a brave and audaciously defiant move, both childishly defensive and unexpectedly clever. For sure, it would be a better publicity move to use her album to show personal growth; instead she is digging her heels in, saying that like it or not, she’s not changing.

Nearly as entrancing is “You Know I’m No Good,” a soulful torch song with smoky saxophones and pulsing trumpets laid over skipping breakbeats and ominous guitar reverb. Mixing her characteristic tough girl pose with a sneering self-pity, her Billie Holiday croon perfectly suits the track’s darkly groaning tapestry, a perfect hybrid of ‘60s soul-stirring balladry and the sultriest of ‘40s jazz crooning. “I cheated myself/like I knew I would,” she laments, “I told you I was trouble/you know that I’m no good.” Sinking into even more of an homage is “Me and Mr. Jones,” a straight-up tribute to misty-eyed ‘50s teen balladry, with a plaintive backing chorus of Winehouse clucking innocently over the track’s throwback blues progression and descending bass lines. Taken purely on a musical level, it’s a track that could have turned up on an early Etta James record, but repeated rhetorical rejoinders such as “what kind of fuckery is this?” put Winehouse’s twist on the standard affectations.

As such, she teeters between defiance and denial throughout Back to Black, showing a glorious grasp of her persona and startling urgency all over its 12 tracks. These are songs shot from the hip, the sound of a 23-year-old woman unraveling, torn between her self-destructive tendencies and genuine desire for love. It’s not that what she says is particularly profound; if anything, Winehouse gives in to overstatement and cliché a bit too often. It’s that she delivers every line with so much nuance and care that you never doubt the sincerity of her sentiments, whether she’s playing the role of wounded lover in the lovely Stevie Wonder-esque balladry of “Love is a Losing Game” or the ominously swirling strings and icy piano chords of the title track.

Of course, all the personality in the world can’t save someone who can’t write a decent song, and while Winehouse is clearly working within the conventions of an already designed template, her skills as a performer invest everything she does with an idiosyncratic energy. That said, for an artist whose persona is already so well developed, Winehouse runs the risk of self-parody with nearly every reference to alcohol or jilted love, something the lesser tracks on Back to Black struggle to avoid. But even though her admiration for the classic girl group and Motown sound borders on larceny – even inspiring her to lift the very backing music from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for “Tears Dry on Their Own” – Winehouse obviously isn’t content to simply mimic Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. She’s making the form her own, singing songs with her voice, leading with her persona the whole time.

Produced by current U.K. uber-producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, the album has a dry, reverb-filled sound, classy and timeless despite the fact that numerous samples and drum loops are employed. As such, the album is a perfect amalgam of old school sounds and new school technology, seamlessly introducing modern techniques to enliven the textures and tighten the beats. The result is arrangements that are dizzying with unexpected and easy to overlook detail, full of all the class and character lacking in the soullessly overproduced radio schlock of contemporary R&B divas.

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