I once saw a meme that said something like, "that which doesn't kill you gives you unhealthy coping mechanisms and a dark sense of humor." That meme is always at the front of my mind whenever I listen to Amy Winehouse's Back to Black. Amy Winehouse was an artist of tremendous talent and skill who fought some terrible demons. She only released two studio albums, Frank in 2003 and the multi-Grammy winning Back to Black in 2006. She passed away in 2011 from alcohol poisoning and we will never know what genius was still inside her. Back to Black is a masterful blending of '60s Motown and 21st century R&B with neo-soul that seems to be some kind of creative catharsis she used for dealing with addiction, mental illness, and a heartbreak. It's provocative, innovative, and tragic.
It's interesting and likely no coincidence that the first track is titled "Rehab" and the final is "Addiction." Both are playful and raucous and speak to the cycle of the downward spiral in which Amy Winehouse was immersed. "Rehab" dives into her addiction and the way she seems to have embraced it. She finds very little value in going to a program:
I'd rather be home with Ray
I ain't got 70 days
'Cause there's nothing, there's nothing you can teach me
That I can't learn from Mr. Hathaway
"Rehab" is a middle finger to sobriety wrapped in a groovy tune. Amy's sultry vocals reveal her rebellion, but also her loneliness. Interesting that she references R&B singer Donnie Hathaway, who also struggled with mental illness and died at a young age.
"Addiction" is Amy complaining that her friend's boyfriend smokes all of her weed. It's a darkly comic song that completes the cycle. If "Rehab" is the provocative f-you to anyone who tries to help her, "Addiction" is her laughing off her situation. This is who she is.
The songs between "Rehab" and "Addiction" are simply spectacular compositions. "You Know I'm No Good" slinks about with its cool bass line and horns while Amy sings about the reality of her troubled relationship. It's filled with self-loathing and feels like the first real cry for help on the album. The first time I listened to "You Know I'm No Good" I focused on the brilliant production and arrangement and, of course, her remarkable voice. Subsequent listenings focused on the lyrics and all the sadness floated to the top.
Sweet reunion, Jamaica and Spain
We're like how we were again
I'm in the tub, you on the seat
Lick your lips as I soap my feet
Then you notice little carpet burn
My stomach crops and my guts churn
You shrug and it's the worst
Who truly stuck the knife in first
Basically, her lover couldn't care less that she has cheated on him and that hurts her. Such a juxtaposition to listen to a song that is at once so sexy and so very sad at the same time.
The other songs on Back to Black all explore similar themes of addiction, heartbreak, and dysfunction with varying degrees of sass, pain, and sultriness. "Me and Mr. Jones," "Tears Dry On Their Own," and "He Can Hold Her" are all standouts, but "Just Friends," "Love Is A Losing Game," "Wake Up Alone," and "Some Unholy War" are all remarkable in their own right.
The song that hits me hardest, though, is the title track. "Back To Black" is the encapsulation of all that Amy Winehouse struggled with: dysfunctional relationships, addiction, depression, and loneliness. The song specifically tells of her lover leaving her abruptly to sleep with an ex.
We only said goodbye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her and I go back to
I go back to us
Much of the album is about regressive behavior and this song especially deals with this. When her lover leaves, she retreats within her self-destruction.
You went back to what you knew
So far removed from all that we went through
And I tread my troubled track
My odds are stacked, I'll go back to black
The meaning of going "back to black" can be a number of things. Sinking back into deep depression. Getting black-out drunk. Maybe it's heroin. It could be all of those. Whatever the specific reference, she's spiraling.
God, this is such a sad song. It's the crown jewel in a maginficent musical achievement. Beautiful, dark, haunting, and flawlessly performed. That so much pain and heartache could be expressed in a four minute song without sounding treacly or maudlin is astounding.
I love this album so much. To me, it represents what great music is. Back To Black is more than a memorable collection of no-skip songs. It is a startling work of art formed from the darkest depths of a troubled, gifted soul.