Back to Black
The 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 reemerged with was great: bleak, but funny; tough, but hopelessly romantic. The chorus, though—it kept tripping him up: “We only said goodbye in words, I died a thousand times.” “This thing in my brain went off,” he tells Apple Music, “like Producer 101. Like, doesn’t it have to rhyme?” He asked her to change it, but she just gave him a blank look. “Like, ‘What do you mean, change it? That’s how it came out—I don’t know how to change it.’” Ronson still has the page, actually: In one corner, the chords for the Grover Washington song “Mr. Magic,” which Winehouse covered on her first album, 2003’s Frank; in another, the phone number of someone Ronson thinks Winehouse met at the club the night before. And drawn around the lyrics, little cartoon hearts, the kind you might see in a young girl’s diary.
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. “He left no time to regret/Kept his dick wet with his same safe old bet”: That was her. But the cartoon hearts: Those were her, too, no matter how hard she worked to keep them hidden. Salaam Remi—who produced the half of the album that Ronson didn’t—says listening to her lyrics was like being with a kid who’s misbehaving: You want to laugh because it’s funny, but if you do, she’s just going to push it further. “That was her shifty comedic energy,” Remi tells Apple Music. “You weren’t getting ‘I’m heartbroken.’ You were getting ‘I’m going to take the piss out of you for thinking you’re going to do something to me.’”
The album’s 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 still makes her music feel different—not so much an attempt to recreate the past as to honor the music she loved while still being true to the trash-talking, self-effacing millennial she was. Remi’s experience working with Nas and the Fugees makes sense: The sound of Back to Black might appeal to retro-soul fans and jazz classicists, but the attitude is closer to rap. And years before the next generation learned to temper their misery with sarcasm, memes, and deadpan fatalism, we had Winehouse and her cartoon hearts, fluttering around words so crass you could barely believe she was singing them at all, let alone with a horn section. Yes, she’s funny. But she isn’t kidding.