Potentially controversial, but to truly understand and enjoy Back to Black (B2B) I feel we must first revisit Frank.
Released 3 years prior, Frank established an audience with its new wave jazz, neo-soul and infused beat sound, so popular in the early 00’s. Unfortunately, to my mind, it failed to stand apart from its contemporaries, artists such as Jamie Cullum, Katie Melua, Bailey Ray and Norah Jones.
Perhaps it was the feeling that it was all a little too ‘manufactured’? Molded by a production team run by Simon Fuller. Who, in addition to Winehouse, also shaped the careers of the Spice Girls and Will Young. To varying degrees of success. So, it is a surprise to some that, from the birthplace of Pop Idol, came the fresh, rebellious, belligerent and strongly opinionated Winehouse.
Amy herself had little time for Frank once it was complete. Speaking to journalists in 2004 she admits – ‘Some things on this album make me go to a little place that’s fucking bitter…I’ve never heard the album from start to finish. I don’t have it in my house.’
Whatever the lessons learned on Frank, no one could have predicted the transformation the 3 intervening years would see. B2B was Winehouse’s Everest. An album so far removed from the ‘soft furnishing’ feel of Frank. An album that transformed the charts for years to come, as well as bringing the beehive back into fashion, for better or worse.
As well as taking complete ownership of B2B’s lyrics, Winehouse took a punt on relatively unknown producer Mark Ronson. His first action was to relocate the entire production to Daptone Studio in New York and crucially employ its house band, the Dap-Kings. An inspired decision that saw Winehouse’s snappy, expressive voice paired with their retro soul style to great effect.
Where Frank relies on jazz café infused style and over-stylised, scat vocals, clumsily reminiscent of the artists Winehouse adored, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn etc. B2B has a far grittier toughness, emphasised by the content of the lyrics and Hip-Hop influences.
A lot has been written about Winehouse’s voice; her creamy power and smoked-cackle huskiness left nothing on the stage, bearing her soul for her devoted fans. But in B2B you felt the stabilisers had finally been removed. Like her idols Winehouse had the ability to draw you in with pure soulful sensuality. Her expressive contralto could 180′ from quietly beautiful to bluntly ragged and sassy in the space of a lyric.
B2B’s title track is the epitome of this. A story of lost love, bitterness and hopelessness, it harks back to old school soul music and vintage 60’s girl groups such as Martha and the Vandellas. Inspired by the breakup of her own relationship to Fielder-Civil, who had left Amy for an ex. ‘Back to black’ is an admission to her relapse back into heroin addiction. It is testament to Winehouse’s writing that something so tragic could be so easily listened to.
From the ‘sass’ side of the scale we have ‘Tears dry on their own’. A far more upbeat tune that draws inspiration from Motown. Indeed, the main chord progression is sampled from Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’. It’s a refreshing oasis on the album and comes just a little over halfway through.
Long since the cardigan wearing, singer-songwriters of the early 70’s, B2B opened the door again for artists to release soul-baring albums that were made to be ‘relatable’. And in a society where social media has made over sharing a sporting pastime, we lapped it up. By writing so frankly about herself and life, Winehouse unintentionally paved the way for artists to publicly air their nepotism in the name of art. Take a bow; Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Adele…
Whether we should thank Amy Winehouse for this is another debate. What isn’t up for debate is the quality of B2B. To date it has achieved 13-times platinum, having sold 3.94 million copies, it is the UK’s second-best selling album of the 21st Century so far (UK’s 13th bestselling album of all time)*.
In 2006, whilst Snow Patrol were Chasing Cars, Pink was reminding us ‘I’m not Dead’ and Oasis were literally trying to ‘Stop the Clocks’. Amy Winehouse and B2B was trying to remind us what it sounds like to really have something to say.
Song of the album: Back to Black
*figures correct as of Dec 2019