It’s an album that until I watched the unmissable “Amy”, I had consigned to the ‘mid-range pop’ pile of the record collection of my mind. I admit that I was gravely mistaken. Amy Winehouse has since become one of my vocal and lyrical favourites of late. Her totally unique voice has the unmistakeable vibe of a smoky bar and one of those cool old microphones. What I’d actually missed though was the tragic poignancy of the words that this voice drape over her deliciously jazzy production. Her tumultuous relationship with Blake and her long battle with addiction clearly have a huge part to play in the darkness of this album. The album is quirky, at times darkly funny and at others deeply painful.
What I love about this album is that it’s not just your run of the mill break up album. The portrait of their relationship is dusty and confused. As a result, you’re never quite sure if she loves the man or wants to witness his slow and painful death. This reflects the general messiness of life, the way we all indulge sometimes in things we know we shouldn’t do. It’s never black and white or simple because the universe likes to make things impossibly discombobulating just for a bit of a laugh. This album encapsulates this perfectly and also laments the “fuckery” of such circumstances.
My personal favourite is “Love Is A Losing Game”, which is brutally simple and dripping with despair. The live version has so much emotion that it’s almost hard to listen to. It has lyrics that could have been pulled from a Nina Simone song and just enough space for Winehouse to fully flex her unbelievable vocal chords. “Tears Dry On Their Own” has tasty big band production, including a juicy brass section and some tinkly piano. The structure of the song works perfectly, with unresolved verse chords that burst into a passionate chorus. “I should just be my own best friend/ Not fuck myself in the head with stupid men”- the way she almost slurs this gives it so much impact and brings out the pure frustration and angst.
“Me & Mr Jones” has one of the most memorable openings I’ve heard. As Winehouse drawls, “what kind of fuckery is this”, the brass section comes in and that snare just hisses away. The juxtaposition of Winehouse’s vehement language with the apparent relaxation of the backing makes it all the more bitter and forceful. She never pushes her voice too much to make it grating and instead plays around with dynamics and style with irresistible drama. “Just Friends” has a reggae-esque beat and allows Winehouse to reveal the more vulnerable side of her voice. Whispering into the huskiness at the bottom shows that she can hold back in a beautiful way and the way she weaves her voice around the ornamentation is masterful.
The song “Back To Black” is an undeniable classic. Heavy with sadness and regret, it laments the end of a relationship muddied by the existence of a third party. The song’s ominous chords are repeated high on the piano in an almost eerie way, whilst the echoing tambourine sounds like the clinking of prison chains. “We only said goodbye with words/ I died a hundred times” is probably the most melancholic line of the album. My final pick is the surprising jaunty “You Know I’m No Good”. Those brass fills are genius. They make you want to be one of those background singers from the sixties shaking your hips on stage. Winehouse sounds like she’s cracking a cheeky smile as she sings this, as if she’s mocking the utter shittiness of the situation. It’s sexy as well which Winehouse does perfectly without even trying.
Ultimately this album resonates because it’s so honest. It has that unmistakeable British cynicism that we hold so dear. “You know what yeah this is royally shit and right now I’m just gonna wallow in that”. The tragedy is that it’s so unresolved. If you haven’t already I urge you to watch the film, it’s heartbreaking and formed completely of previously recorded footage. No talking heads, just unadulterated perspective. I challenge you not to shed at least internal tears. It will make you view this album in a totally different light and realise that in losing Amy Winehouse, we lost one of the great voices of our generation.
Peace as always,