Back to Black

Back to Black

Producer Mark Ronson remembers when Amy Winehouse came in with the lyrics for “Back to Black”. They were at a studio in New York in early 2006, their first day working together. Ronson had given her a portable CD player with the song’s piano track, and Winehouse disappeared into the back for about an hour to write. What she re-emerged with was masterful: bleak, funny, tough, hopelessly romantic. The chorus, though, kept tripping him up because it didn’t rhyme: “We only said goodbye with words, I died a hundred times.” He asked her to change it, but she just gave him a blank look: That’s just how it came out, she didn’t know how to change it. For all her brashness, what makes Back to Black so moving is the sense that Winehouse is constantly trying to punch through her pain—not to suppress it exactly, but to wrap it in enough barbed wire that nobody could quite reach its core. The appeal to soul music is obvious: the Motown horns (“Rehab”, “Tears Dry on Their Own”), the girl-group romance (“Back to Black”), the organic quality of the arrangements (“You Know I’m No Good”)—much of it courtesy of Brooklyn outfit The Dap-Kings. But Winehouse’s presentation and otherworldly, timeless vocals still make her music feel different—not so much an attempt to recreate the past as to honour the music she loved while still being true to the trash-talking, self-effacing millennial she was. Years before the next generation learned to temper their misery with sarcasm, memes and deadpan fatalism, we had Amy Winehouse, fluttering around words so crass you could barely believe she was singing them at all, let alone with a horn section. The sound of Back to Black might appeal to retro-soul fans and jazz classicists, but the attitude is closer to rap. Yes, she was funny. But she wasn’t kidding.

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