Back To Black Turns 10
“When you write a song, you have to remember how you felt,” Amy Winehouse says, as she recalls the making of Back To Black in a scene from Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning documentary Amy. “You might have to remember what the weather was like, you might have to remember what his neck smelled like. You have to remember all of it.”
Those were the thoughts that Winehouse distilled in March of 2006 when she recorded the bulk of her second (and final) album, Back To Black. She worked with Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, and as Ronson remembers it, Winehouse wrote the title track’s lyrics in an hour after hearing the song’s piano chords. Seven months later, Winehouse released Back To Black in the UK. Its opening track and debut single, “Rehab,” would peak at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2007. A year later, Winehouse won three Grammy Awards for the song at the age of 25. She watched one of her idols, Tony Bennett (who later stated that Winehouse had “the complete gift”), proclaim her the winner of Record Of The Year from a small, private gathering in London. Her jaw dropped and her eyes widened for a moment before she turned to hug her band, her mom, her dad, her closest friends. And then, three years later, she was dead.
It’s impossible to revisit Back To Black 10 years on and not think about this basic, tragic fact. When a musician dies young, all of their work becomes a road map to destruction. Every quote and every lyric has subtext. Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning at her home in Camden on July 23, 2011 at the age of 27. A lot of people were unsurprised. The singer had undergone a very public struggle with drug addiction and alcohol abuse, and a much more private and sheltered battle with bulimia. Winehouse was a tabloid headline for almost as long as she was a presence on the radio. She was a celebrity, the kind that people had grown accustomed to seeing traipsing around some city, bruised and battered in dirtied ballet flats, towering beehive in disarray, strands of stray hair stuck in her iconic smudged wingtips. That was the look she owned comfortably, as an artist whose most famous song is about refusing to go to rehab.
But there was another Winehouse known to a select few as a genius. She was the person who made 2003’s Frank and then Back To Black, the singer with an inimitable voice who drew inspiration from sources far from the mainstream. In many ways, Amy Winehouse was an unconventional celebrity. At the time “Rehab” peaked on the Billboard Hot 100, she was an old soul sandwiched between Justin Timberlake’s “Summer Love” (at #8) and Lil Mama’s “Lip Gloss” (#10, great song). Above her was a smattering of rock-ish music from Avril Lavigne, Maroon 5, Plain White T’s, and a few party anthems (Shop Boyz’ “Party Like A Rock Star,” T-Pain’s “Buy U A Drank,” Rihanna’s “Umbrella”). She had a certain look and schtick that no one else was selling, and she sold it better than anyone else could, because she didn’t really ever seem to want to be famous. At least not like that. Winehouse was as authentic as a celebrity could get, and she paved the way for a lot of other artists to readily be themselves. Adele wouldn’t be as massive as she is without Winehouse, and even Adele will admit that. Everything Winehouse did seemed to come from a place of profound love for the music. Her sincerity was palpable.
“Authenticity” and “sincerity” are two of the weightiest words we use when discussing celebrity and pop music. We like our stars relatable, but not too normal. Tortured, but not so tortured they can’t give us a killer performance. Damaged — maybe — but not dead. There’s a realness we crave and then recoil from when it becomes too real. When you watch Kapadia’s Amy, it is almost impossible not to feel complicit in her death. As a fan, or a spectator, it elicits a sense of responsibility for the singer, an urge to shoulder the blame. But what that film also does exceedingly well is show us who Winehouse was away from all of the horrors we got too used to. In a sense, it exhumed her from a fucked-up tabloid presence and humanized her experience. It also reminded us of Winehouse’s enormous talent.
At its heart, Back To Black is a breakup album. Winehouse’s boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil — who she eventually married in the year after the album’s release — left her for an ex in the months before she began writing it, and the trauma of feeling left behind, forgotten, is audible in every song. “He left no time to regret/ Kept his dick wet/ With his same old safe bet,” she bitterly opens “Back To Black.” Winehouse classifies the fallout of the breakup as a period of mourning, and the language she uses to describe the loss is funereal. The accompanying video follows Winehouse and a second-line procession to a cemetery as she literally lays her lost love to rest. It’s not desperate so much as defiant. “We only said goodbye with words/ I died a hundred times/ You go back to her/ And I go back to us.”
Defiance defined Amy Winehouse from the beginning. Her debut album, Frank, borrowed inspiration from James Taylor, Carole King, Tony Bennett. She named the thing for her “frank” tone and one of her idols: Frank Sinatra. It wasn’t made to be a pop album, and she wasn’t designed to be a pop star, so when Winehouse actually went into the studio to create a made-to-be-commercially-successful LP, she didn’t do so in a conventional way. There are huge, sweeping arrangements on Back To Black, bits of instrumentation that sound so at home with her voice that they force you into a state of momentary freefall. When Back To Black first arrived, it sounded like time travel. Winehouse was a one-woman ‘60s girl group with a big brassy voice, a broken heart, and an attitude problem. She made old-school R&B and cussed while doing it. Winehouse sounded like someone who’d seen a lot of shit and somehow was inspired by it — like she lived her whole life with eyes wide open.
Winehouse memorialized a lot of that shit on Back To Black. She started writing it by steeping herself in memory in Miami, at the home of her longtime friend and producer Salaam Remi, who worked with her on Frank, before taking those scraps to New York to workshop. Determined not to lose the gruff, old-soul sound of her debut album, Winehouse enlisted Sharon Jones’ band, the Dap-Kings, to record and tour with her. She also elected to work with Ronson, who has notably worked on some of the best throwbacky pop music of the past decade. Around the same time he produced Back To Black, Ronson worked on Christina Aguilera’s similarly titled Back To Basics, which featured the smokey single “Ain’t No Other Man.” It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that working with Winehouse helped Ronson find his lane, one that he sped down freely with the release of the Bruno Mars-helmed “Uptown Funk” several years after Winehouse’s death. Alongside Ronson and Remi, Winehouse and the Dap-Kings built a wall of sound wholly independent of anything heard on the charts at the time. There are pan flute trills on this album, tambourines, the practically imperceptible sound of a shaker. Those carefully considered arrangements cushion Winehouse’s heartbreak, elevate it, turn it into something relatable and fun to hear about, rather than the singular vision of someone going through a hard time.
Bookending the UK version of Back To Black are two songs about dependency: “Rehab” and “Addicted.” The former is quite literally a song about a time when her management recommended getting treatment for substance abuse and her father, complex figure that he is, thought she was doing just fine. The latter is a bit more opaque, a tongue-twisted series of accusations against a deadbeat smoking her weed, but it’s also a personal declaration of independence. “Don’t make no difference if I end up alone,” she sings. “I’d rather have myself and smoke my homegrown/ It’s got me addicted, does more than any dick did.” When you think about Back To Black, or sit down to write an essay about the album, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the tragedy of it all. But when you really listen to the album divorced of Winehouse’s death, her wordplay is so cheeky that those moments start to stand apart from her real life’s bitter storyline.
There’s a lot of joy to be found amidst Back To Black’s tragedy. First, there’s the joy that comes with listening to someone do what they did best. Then there’s Winehouse’s side-eyed lyrics (take “Hand me your Stella and fly,” or “I’m not ashamed but the guilt will kill you/ If she don’t first,” for reference), and pointed production quirks that can only really be described as “fun.” The squelching horns on “Me & Mr. Jones,” the way a posse of backup singers echo Winehouse when she sings, “Nowadays you don’t mean dick to me.” Dick to me. Dick to me. They follow, cherubically. My favorite moment on the album surfaces in the sassy kiss-off single “Tears Dry On Their Own,” when Winehouse lifts her voice up to proclaim that from here on out she’ll be her own best friend and “not fuck myself in the head with stupid men.”
Back To Black is filled with little revelations like that. They don’t always lead to grand, life-changing questions, but they do lead to practical ones. Should I break it off forever with my loser ex? Should I try to quit drinking? Should I go to rehab? The answer to all of those questions is and will forever be a resounding “no.” Production aside, maybe that refusal to do what’s best makes Back To Black feel everlasting. It confronts the apocalypse that comes with being heartbroken and 20-something, trying to live on your own and realizing that you’re no good at it. It’s impossible to listen to Back To Black’s deluxe edition, with its bonus tracks and B-sides, and not wonder where Winehouse would be today if things went differently for her. She’d be playing stadiums, no doubt. She’d be working with her heroes, following through on all of the plans she’d laid out for herself when life was going OK. Back To Black is a wise parting gift, though. Despite all of the pain and processing, it’s an attempt to figure out whether or not it’s possible to accept abandonment, to take care of yourself and still love someone else eternally at the same time.