I’m not normally one to bludgeon people with stats, but try these on for size: of the four singles to be taken from Amy Winehouse’s platinum-selling, pseud-tickling debut album Frank, the highest-charting was 'Take The Box', which hit the less-than giddy heights of number 57 in 2004. Contrast that with the three top-25 singles lifted from Back To Black, the biggest-selling album of the year so far, and you’re drawn to an inevitable conclusion – somewhere along the line, Amy Winehouse has gone POP with a bang. To which the correct answer is: thank Christ for that.
Part of the credit for this unlikely turnaround has to go to Mark Ronson, who co-produces here with longtime Winehouse collaborator Salaam Remi, and helps to create a wonderfully warm-sounding record that’s equal parts polish and world-weary scuff. But let’s face it, this is a lady who was born to be a pop star – when she’s not busy heckling Bono or gobbing at Simon Amstell, she draws upon her considerable vocal skills to pack a soulful clout her cred-pop contemporaries can only dream of. It’s this, combined with a wayward way with contemporary cockney vernacular, that lifts Back To Black out of the realms of Joss Stone-esque pastiche and into a peculiar brilliance all of its own. If anything, Winehouse is like the Anti-Stone, cutting to the quick of her prickly, unsentimental lyrics where the Welsh warbler meanders ineffectually around her greetings card sentiments.
'Rehab' captures perfectly her bolshy wilfulness, recalling a run-in with her management company when they suggested she attend rehab to deal with her ongoing battle with the booze problems, and Winehouse responded in kind by dumping them. Similarly great are 'You Know I’m No Good', which mixes Ronson’s hip-hop beats and trademark brass with a duplicitous, self-loathing lyric (“Thinkin’ of you in the final throes / This is when my buzzer goes”), and 'Me And Mr Jones (Fuckery)', a twinkling, rock ‘n’ roll tearjerker that features a smouldering, jazzy vocal from Winehouse.
But Winehouse’s triumph isn’t merely colloquial, and where the likes of Lily Allen are content to hang their deadpan, “shit / fit” rhyming couplets on a largely uninteresting wallpaper pop template, Back To Black emerges victorious with grit and gravitas. It’s the heart-stopping shuffle of the title-track that illustrates this best, Winehouse making her misery plain at a boyfriend’s graphically-illustrated philanderings: ”We only said goodbye with words / I died a hundred times / You go back to her, and I go back to black”.
She can do graceful, as well - 'Love Is A Losing Game' echoes the cool sophistication of Dusty In Memphis - it’s since been covered by Prince – and 'Wake Up Alone' is an understated, small-hours lament on waking up to an empty bed.
'Addicted' provides the record’s only real false note, a slightly tedious dissing of a weed-scrounging acquaintance curiously omitted from the US release, which comes off coarse as opposed to witty: “I’d rather have myself a smoke of my homegrown / It’s got me addicted, does more than any dick did.”
At this point, you may wish to ask: what in fuckery are you doing reviewing this record now? Well, I dunno... the Mercury Music Prize, perhaps? Bottom line is, Back To Black is a fully-fledged classic that should have been ringing in your ears for roughly eight months by now, and if not, well, get on it.
9Alex Denney's Score