As the old saying goes, “the sun never sets on England;” so the modern music scene seems to maintain, “cheers from Britain, where the brilliance never fades,” and in both cases it is in the darkest moments where light burns brightest. Enter Amy Winehouse. Before Hov’s heavily-mediated man-on-a-mission 2009 Auto-Tune massacre, Amy killed it softly; before Roc Nation rocked “all black everything,” Amy Winehouse took it Back to Black. Let’s revisit the death and renaissance of rehab.
The Sound: Back to Black is raw, gritty, weathered, worn, raspy, and authentic. Winehouse taps into the darkest, emptiest, deepest core of human nature –– isolation and solitude result of the search for companionship and connection. Mark Ronson’s magnum opus brought Millennials back to the speakeasy. The sound is timeless in the midst of momentary mainstream music. The worn 3 piece jazz drum set like a heartbeat, the old piano keying along, the full-sized standing bass, the vintage guitar like an inverse accent to Amy’s vocals, the signature brass horn section wailing; Mark Ronson’s melange so naturally underscores the raspy croons, it’s as if the vocals and instrumentals both bellow like smoke from Winehouse’s lungs –– au revoir auto-tune.
So deep, so powerful, so soulful, so addictive. Back to Black mellows out the listener, lulling them into a catatonic state and Amy’s psyche. The mood is conveyed so powerfully, so slowly, so deliberately, but with such an ease that there is no detachment, sense of witnessing a production, or observing art, the listener becomes the artist remembering and reliving a chapter. From “Rehab” to “Addicted,” and everywhere in between, Back to Black’s tracks leave you checking your arms for marks.
The Story: Back to Black is a dope sick love story. What the Temptations, Al Green, Bill Withers, and Marvin Gaye felt for their girls and women, Amy feels for her drugs –– love is love. This is a beautifully tragic story. Human relationships are secondary to her first love, her love jones, the fix she jonses for: “Nobody stands in between me and my man, it’s me and Mr. Jones.” Men come and go, but the H remains. Like a mother, like a father, like a significant other, Mr. Jones is her gauge, her go-to guy, her fuel, her friend, her foe.
The lyrics are universal, yet uniquely Amy’s –– she tells everyone’s addict tale. Love, like the “one that got away,” like the dragon is always en route, always in pursuit, and never in hand. The heart aches and pleads for that first taste again but to no avail, you can never go home again. Alas, the drug is Amy’s soulmate –– like Eve to Adam it completes her and it is her “most suitable partner.” Yet drugs are inanimate, they merely enhance or augment that which is already within the user, so Amy is her own best friend and worst enemy. She laments, singing to a dime bag, as much as she could be singing to a mirror, to her man, “You Know I’m No Good,” “He Can Only Hold Her,” etc. If poetry is naming things, this is its antithesis; Back to Black tells a universal tale, void of specific titles, of love and that it is inevitably a losing game –– but the only one worth playing. It’s impossible for any listener to not know the demise after living the fall with Winehouse.
The Scene: Pop encapsulates the du jour and Back to Black is not Top 40, nor is it Pop, but it captured 2007: The Year in Pop better than any other.
Back to Black is the view from rock bottom, but as above so below and vice versa. The addiction, the confusion, the haze of summer ’07 daze into the winter –– unseasonably warmed by the seeming move towards Hell on Earth –– all eerily chronicled by an album opening with “Rehab” (no doubt the word of the year). Literally: it was a snapshot soundtrack to the year of the DUI Five. Those celebrity train-wrecks that bankrolled their own economy via entertainment media, those who “had it all, but gave it all away recklessly,” those who held the U.S.’ attention if only because they were iconographies of a country who was in that same fateful place of the broken American Dream –– from the shattered celebrity to the subprime fallout.
As above, so below. Back to Black was the effortless death of auto-tune, the proverbial drummer to the 808, because like a drum machine, auto-tune has no soul. The controversy surrounding Back to Black’s well-deserved Grammy awards centered around the belief that Amy Winehouse should not be rewarded for bad behavior. 1) It’s a Grammy, not a Stepford of the Year award 2) Back to Black reflected who the artist was, who we were, and the inherent link between the musician and the masses –– not who we deluded ourselves into believing we might be on a passable day. Amy and the album’s drug-addled rhymes and rhythms embody the notion that where the artist suffers the art succeeds.
Where Back to Black was the assumed anti-rehab anthem, it rehabilitated a dead medium. A drug is anything taken to alter one’s current state of being. Where Back to Black reiterated our current state as a generation, it was also the escapist drug that true music can’t help but be, and yet the detox to the industry that forgot its roots.