Listen to this track by tremendously gifted and seemingly cursed British R&B singer Amy Winehouse. It’s “Back To Black”, the title track to her 2007 sophomore album, Back To Black. The song comes off an album produced by Mark Ronson, who also co-wrote this tune with Winehouse, a tale of a lost relationship, and the mourning period that often follows.
This was the third single off of a record that made her name on the international stage, with “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good” being the other two. One of the reasons that these songs, and this record was a success was Winehouse’s voice which connected to a rich seam of R&B singing tradition laid down by Etta James, Erma Franklin, Betty Wright, and others. By the 2000s, these influences were new all over again. Yet, Winehouse was a new voice beyond her influences, with a seemingly effortless capacity for the blues and soulful phrasing all of her own.
But, I think another reason why this song works so well is because it establishes the persona of its author. Of course it would be this that would secure her place in the pop pantheon (not to mention the tabloids), and be her downfall, too.
I’m sure that many, including Amy Winehouse herself, would consider this song to be a love song. I think that’s true; it is. Break-ups and abandonment are often a part of what it is to be in love, even if that love isn’t the best thing in the world for us. But, it’s difficult to separate her personal story from her songwriting. Maybe that was true of her, too, that she could not avoid placing herself in her own songs. It’s also difficult in 2015 to avoid viewing this song in the light of her death as well, with even the phrase “back to black” sounding prescient.
Her story was well documented in the tabloids at the time, to the point where her music seemed to play second fiddle to that narrative. But, the more vital telling of that story can be found right here; an abandoned woman left to her own devices, and to her personal shadows, as her loved one slinks off into the arms of a former flame with little regard for the damage that is caused the one left behind. This is prime territory for soul singing, of course. It was certainly easy to miss that this was more than just a love gone wrong song. Eight years later, it sounds like a cry for help, and from someone who, it could be argued, never would have acknowledged it as such. Try to make her go to rehab? Well, the answer to that is also well-known; her “daddy thinks I’m fine”. Given the autobiographical nature of this song, it’s the same guy who leaves her high and dry on this song, presumably.
There is an idea out there that in order to create art, and be authentic, you must suffer. But, I rail against all that, personally. I don’t think that artists have to give up their souls to be soulful. In this case, a soul was certainly lost, with the art masking the pain behind it. Personally, I would have preferred a real break up album from Winehouse, to be followed by a rising toward the light album that marked her return from the edge. But behind that soulful voice of experience heard on everything she sang, she was a young woman who was vulnerable, susceptible to the pull of her own demons, and to the negative influences of those close to her.
Perhaps it’s that which made her great; her capacity for vulnerability, and not her suffering, which aren’t the same thing.
Amy Winehouse died too young in 2011. But, you can still visit amywinehouse.com to learn more about her, and delve more deeply into what she left behind – her music.