Back to black
Universal, Rs 395
There are morons on the internet. But a winner in the moron sweepstakes has to be a gent named Vikram Zutshi who commented on a Facebook post relating to Amy Winehouse’s death last week: “I’m amazed at all the mourning over a bigoted crack whore and almost nothing for ten million Somalians dying of hunger, or the hundred Norwegians killed yesterday... what the fuck is wrong with people?”
Zutshi isn’t the only one who would rather hear Mother Teresa sing. For the rest of us less righteous folks, a great talent is to be measured by the pleasure she gave us through her music and not by the carton-grams of righteousness doled out for consumption. For Amy was what she was because of her self-destructive streak, not despite it. If you can’t handle that truth, listen to ‘We are the world’.
Much has been made of artists with demons brewing inside them. The proof of the pudding in Amy’s case is her singularly staggering 2006 album — her second — Back to Black. This is one of the great break-up albums of all time. (The record was made after Amy broke up with her then boyfriend, later husband Blake Fielder-Civil.) Back to Black oozes with sassy sadness.
From the very first lines of ‘Rehab’, Amy carries a swagger that is so brittle. Her relationship with alcohol and detox may have made the track a pop cultural phenom, rather than a great pop tune. But when the scratchy, finger-clickin’ music sets in, we hear Amy lay the whole story out on the table: “The man said, ‘Why do you think you here?’/ I said, ‘I got no idea/ I’m gonna, I’m gonna lose my baby/ So I always keep a bottle near’.”
The downbeat of ‘You know I’m no good’ is infectious. Amy’s voice, nasal and pushy, flows as the horns bump up her exhibitionist’s sorrow: “I cheated myself/ Like I knew I would/ I tol’ ya I was trouble/ You know that I’m no good.” Self-pity never sounded so proud.
‘Me & Mr Jones’ has the old 60s girl groups vibe to it. This could be a Chantels song, weren’t it for one delightful difference: Amy flirt-singing “What kind of fuckery is this?” It’s that kind of rock’n’rollness that makes the retro-ish music ooze with colour.
The jazzy ‘Just friends’ dips into the soul bag and peppers it with Brixton buff and a ska beat. Her voice floats, descends, staggers: “When will we get the time to be just friends?/ It’s never safe for us not even in the evening/ ’Cos I’ve been drinking/ Not in the morning where your shit works/ It’s always dangerous when everybody’s sleeping/ And I’ve been thinking/ Can we be alone?/ Can we be alone?”
What follows is the grand doom tune of the title track. The restraint in her singing — there are no vocal calisthenics — is that of not moving an inch while driving full speed into a concrete wall. “You go back to her/ And I go back to black” she sings, magically stripped of the maudlin. ‘Love is a losing game’ has the soft soul touch, which hardens in ‘Tears dry on their own’ where the semi-big band sound finds a swing. The motown hits the ground running in ‘Wake up alone’. Amy finds her inner Nina Simone and delivers it to us with such tenderness that it actually hurts to hear her.
The chaka-chaka guitars-drums-chorus in ‘Some unholy war’ is repeated with a twist in ‘He can only hold her’. Is it a catchy tune or a wolf wail?
Back to Black is a work of utter passion, pit-of-the-stomach desolation, channelled through a raw nerve that hurts in its beauty. When you listen to Amy singing in ‘Wake up alone’ — “If I was my heart/ I’d rather be restless/ The second I stop the sleep catches up and I’m breathless/ This ache in my chest/ As my day is done now/ The dark covers me and I cannot run now” — you know the power of someone not embarrassed to flaunt her disappointment with the world even as she expected the world from it.