I have referenced the title track from today’s album by Amy Winehouse, “Back to Black”, on several occasions. I have stated that I think this song is one of the greatest captures of the emotion of devastating sadness that I have ever heard, driven by the choice of her boyfriend/ex-boyfriend/future husband to go back to a former relationship. It is the centerpiece of this album, but far from the only great song on this beautifully crafted record. Rated #33 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, I would be inclined to move it higher. The collaboration of Amy Winehouse’s one-of-a-kind voice and her songwriting gift with the production expertise of Mark Ronson delivers a short, but very bittersweet musical gift.
In 2006, I was fairly disconnected from the current music of the time, and Amy Winehouse was primarily known by me for her continuous troubles and public crisis played out in the tabloids and paparazzi. She clearly had all of the signs of a tragic story waiting for her sad ending, which unfortunately occurred in 2011 with her death from alcohol poisoning. It wasn’t until many years later when I watched the Academy Award winning documentary on her life that was filled with a lot of personal footage from her life, when I finally discovered her beauty and grace. I learned that while ultimately, she was accountable for her own choices like we all are, her brutal struggle with substance abuse was fueled by the constant betrayal of her boyfriend/husband and the indifference and exploitation by her own father as he kept driving her to record and perform, placing the family income ahead of her own health and well-being. Both situations are well documented on this record, and it is very clear Amy brought all of her heart and soul, no matter how much they hurt, into her songwriting.
Although her life was cut way too short, at the age of 27 like so many other performers in this blog, the impact she had in her career and in particular, this album is profound. The music on this record is a delicious throwback to the pop-soul era of the 1960s, as well as the decades of beautiful R&B singers who preceded her in greatness. The sultry, warm vibe, enhanced by horns, strings, and whatever other production magic Ronson chose to add, makes this album an all-time classic.
The record opens with the painfully biographical track “Rehab”. Where is that line between a fun lifestyle you control and a spiraling lifestyle that controls you? I know many of us are still looking for some of those answers in our own lives. By any fair measurement, it is safe to say Amy had probably gone well past that line, but as the song says, “I ain’t got the time, and my Daddy thinks I’m fine. They tried to make me go to rehab, and I said, No, No, No.” It’s a remarkably catchy melody and I have to assume most listeners at the time celebrated this song for their own defiance as they partied on.
Next comes “You Know I’m No Good”, another smoky self-portrayal that is impactful in music and in word. “Me & Mr. Jones” is a sassier track that further diversifies the sound of this album. There really isn’t a weak song on this album; it is remarkable all the way through. Another landmark song from this record is “Tears Dry On Their Own”, which is perfectly retro and every day relevant at the same time. I appreciate all artists who write their own material, and few have done it as well as Amy did.
For all that I love about this record, I will always be most moved by the title song. The chilling piano opening gives way to her state-of-shock numbness, and she lays out in the most graphic and blunt manner possible, the wallop of devastation she is wrestling with in this song. She has entered that place where you are beyond mad, beyond tears, brought to the point of complete void of outward feeling or expression at the outcome of this broken relationship. In some manner I’m sure most of us have felt this kind of complete loss of feeling and heartbreak at some point in our lives, when we are left with nothing but the void of the “Black” vacuum in our heart. It doesn’t have to last forever, and with time and more positive subsequent discoveries, there is a way out, but it sure can flatten you in the moment.
When I combine the emotion of this song with the tragic and unnecessary way her life ended when she was let down by the very people she needed the most, it is hard not to experience some emotions every time I hear this song. It wasn’t supposed to end this way for Amy Winehouse, just like any life that short is never supposed to turn out that way, but thankfully she left us this enduring gift of music we can all turn to in our happiest and saddest times.
“We only said goodbye with words, I died a hundred times, You go back to her, and I go back to… black.”