Ever since I was little I’ve always wanted to discover artists who end up becoming huge before anyone else does. I was always jealous of 40 years old guys telling me that they saw U2 or REM in a small little club. I’ve only had that luck with two artists: Kings of Leon and Amy Winehouse.
I first heard about her in a British Music Magazine sometime in early 2007. There were mentions of old school soul with an updated sound. From the pictures, she was equally fascinating with her signature bee-hive and Cleopatra eye-lashes. Little did I realize at the time, that the tattoos that adorned her as she wore girl groups outfits were symbolic of her music – updating a classic. Christina Aguilera had desperately tried a retro sound and style the year before, but as always with her it seemed like posturing. Winehouse seemed legitimate, even if I had yet to hear a single song from her.
As it turned out, Back to Back had yet to be released in the US. I kind of forgot about it for a while until I saw the album randomly at a record store. Remembering what I had read, I quickly snatched it up. Needless to say, I sort of became obsessed with it really quick. This was unusual for me, since I don’t usually listen to albums that could potentially be considered “Top 40”.
But there was something about Back to Black that pulled me in. Obviously, a huge part of the appeal was the sound. Winehouse looked like she wanted to be in the Ronettes or the Shangri-Las but on Back to Black, she played the part. The melodies were reminiscent of classic Motown singles without sounding like a knock-off. It also didn’t hurt that many of the songs on the album were backed by the Dap-Kings – a soul revival band most famous for their work with Sharon Jones.
Of course the sound itself wouldn’t matter as much if the songs weren’t good. On Back to Black, Winehouse is hilarious, self-deprecating, vulgar and most of all heart-breaking. Her voice is warm and affecting, while also devastating. “Rehab” may be the album’s most famous song – but that’s only skimming the surface. “You shrug and its the worst, to truly stick the knife in first” Winehouse admits in “You Know I’m No Good”. Amazingly she also manages to make the word “fuckery” sound like a real word and full of soul on “Me & Mr. Jones”. If anyone else had uttered that in a song, I would have laughed.
The absolute best song on the album, is the title track. It’s a titan of a song, and a legendary performance. If anyone doubts that Winehouse wasn’t talented, all they need to do this is listen to this song. Over a dark and pouring piano, Winehouse generates a sympathy for scorned lover that is very rare in pop music – “We only said goodbye with words, I died a a hundred times, you go back to her and I go back to black.” During the bridge, Winehouse repeats the word “black” several times. There’s no doubt that she had to come from a dark place to sing like that.
On an episode of Glee, Will Schuster informs his students that the best songs come from pain. And that’s the case with Back to Black. It’s an album that only certain people can make. For us, we got great music. It’s too bad Winehouse never realized her talents.