The following is an excerpt from Kate Solomon’s new book, Amy Winehouse, which is out now in the U.K. and sees U.S. release on April 13. Amy Winehouse is the second book in Laurence King Publishing’s Lives of the Musicians series. Kate Solomon is a music journalist who has written for The Guardian, Q, Sunday Times Culture, Time Out and Billboard.
It’s strange to go back and try to listen to Back to Black with new ears. It’s become such a part of the cultural landscape that even if you’ve never listened to the full album, you know parts of it intimately – in the same way that even if you’ve never seen Star Wars, you know something about Luke Skywalker and his family situation. It’s also very hard to listen to now you know it’s part of the end of the story, rather than the opening chapter it should have been. So much of what Amy went through in life is in there. She snuck stories of a 20-something’s occasionally scandalous love life into the living rooms and CD players of millions of parents by couching talk of wet d–ks, carpet burn, too much booze and general ‘f–kery’ in vintage Motown sounds and girl-group melodies. A Trojan horse with a capital T. As usual, it’s full of feints and misdirection – ‘Rehab’, for example, a party tune we spend our Saturday nights dancing to, but also immortalizing a turning point, a moment in time when maybe an addict who later died could have been saved. The crab-claw beat and jaunty horns belie what we now know was a life or death subject matter – but hey, it’s also a killer pop song. And sometimes you can listen to it one way, and sometimes the other.
The homages to the olden days extend to the album’s length – 11 songs, each around the 3-minute mark, as if they’re set to be released on ’45s, so it’s a short but bittersweet trip through heartache and out into … what? Redemption? Resolution? Resignation? Perhaps a bit of all three – but certainly not into rehabilitation. Just as with Frank, Amy lambasts herself for making bad choices. ‘You Know I’m No Good’ shrugs to us like, ‘Hey, you knew this wouldn’t end well.’ These songs burn with Amy’s fear that she’ll always be left, alone, crying on the kitchen floor with a cold bag of KFC by her side.
‘Me & Mr Jones’ has an all-time great opening line, featuring Amy’s favourite word: ‘f–kery’. Even when she’s angry, Amy is only ever capable of being Amy. The jazz-club snare, the moody brass, the sweetness of the way she sings the title line. She’s angry but resigned. She’s sad but she’s open to forgiveness. It doesn’t sound like something made in the new millennium – it sounds adrift in space and time, anchored by that voice.
And, of course, there’s the emotional gut punch of the title track, almost Sisyphean in its structure, as though we are doomed to repeat the cycle over and over. He’ll go back to her; Amy will go back to black. The doomiest-sounding tambourine slaps since The Shangri-Las, and the pounding, discordant piano riff like a racing heart – she’s in full mourning. It’s no surprise that the video for ‘Back to Black’ was shot in a cemetery; there’s a funereal air to it, the grief and loss of a relationship breakdown. You don’t need to know much about Amy and Blake’s relationship to spot the details that relate to it – the lover going back ‘to her’ while the singer sinks deeper into oblivion. It’s not a howl of pain but a sob into a cushion, a brave face trying to assert itself. That church bell tolling near the end as Amy sings ‘black’ over and over; the oblivion of it all. How can she go on from here? It is devastating. What other song of the 2000s has this power?
Back to Black was released on 27 October 2006 in the UK, but it wasn’t until the following year that things went stratospheric: it sold over 1.85 million copies, becoming the best-selling album of 2007 [in the UK]. Unlike Frank, Back to Black also got a US release, entering the Billboard charts at number 7 and becoming the highest debut for a UK female of all time [at the time]. It was a smash, catapulting Amy into the upper echelons of the A-list and all the flashbulbs and demands on her time that came with it.