Amy Winehouse – ‘Back To Black’ (Album Review)
Her debut was called “Frank” and it was. So it’s anyone’s guess why Amy Winehouse’s souled-out, Motown-drenched follow-up isn’t called “Frankly Foul-Mouthed”. Obviously, brilliant records – and frankly, you couldn’t call “Back To Black” anything else – aren’t built on rudeness alone, whatever Serge Gainsbourg and 2 Live Crew might have hoped.
Although you have to admit there is an awful lot of it about on this album: tongue-lashings to dope-cadgers; brusque rebuffs of therapy for the problem drinker; gratuitous use of the word “f*ckery” in an otherwise polite song title. And recurrent references to male members – ie men’s determination to employ them in the widest possible number of locations; their lack of appeal compared to Class A substances etc.
All of which means queen-sized attitude in a world full of eager lickle girls with more stilettos than spine. But there’s more to Amy than that: you could strip every naughty word out of “Back To Black” and it’d still sweat hot, sticky, black eye-linered bad-girl charisma. Especially since vocally, her early promise has matured into a rich bouquet of Aretha Franklin, Ronnnie Spector and Eartha Kitt; alternately purringly seductive, commandingly tough, and teasing delicate nuance from “Some Unholy War”.
What’s more, there isn’t a second’s worth of music here that doesn’t come mink-swathed in note-perfect retro sound, or a song that isn’t worthy of it. The smoochy, sharp-suited ska of “Just Friends”; the stardust doo-wop of “Me & Mr Jones”; the soaring Laura Nyro-esque soul of “Tears Dry On Their Own”; the sassy, brassy gospel of “Rehab” are all pure class. And, crystallising “Back To Black”‘s girl-group obsession, a goose-pimplingly thrilling title track that bursts, larger than life, from Phil Spector’s melodrama-dripping Wall of Sound and Ellie Greenwich’s heartbreak couplets.
On any other record, it’d be the standout: here, it’s trumped by the Carla Thomas-esque “You Know I’m No Good”. Underneath the sly Memphis skank and the well-turned cheating-heart conventions, beyond the neatly chosen detail of telltale carpet burns, you’re left with a picture of Winehouse poking a sharp, unflinching, fascinated fingernail into her own self-disgust until it draws blood.
That fearless knack, along with the ability to get into the very soul of much-aped but rarely matched pop genres, hasn’t been done this well since Elvis Costello was in his savage prime. And frankly, when you factor in the knock-em-dead voice and the killer eyeliner, Elvis is nowhere f*cking close.