Winehouse did have a fantastic sense of humor, and she certainly knew how to cultivate an image, but on “Mr. Jones,” those backup singers are actually saying, “Ooh, Slick Rick.” They’re echoing her words, signaling that they’re familiar with the old-school rapper, and that Amy resides in their universe.
They’re part of her gang -- not freaked-out extras in a kind of musical Pleasantville, struggling to understand some vulgar creature from the future.
That’s why Back to Black succeeds from start to finish and remains such a fantastic listen—even with all the baggage now attached to Winehouse, who died in 2011 of alcohol poisoning. Produced by Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, the album doesn’t hinge on the juxtaposition of Amy’s thoroughly modern personality and the throwback Motown and girl-group sounds cooked up by her collaborators. Reducing the record in such a way does a disservice to both Winehouse and the music she so lovingly references.
The ‘60s R&B that Winehouse reps on Back to Black was created by people who’d lived through some stuff, too. It’s strong enough to carry whatever lyrical content she throws at it. From Florence Ballard of The Supremes to members of The Temptations to Marvin Gaye, plenty of Motown artists struggled with addiction and other demons. Social mores were such that you couldn’t sing about these things, or the nitty-gritty of romantic relationships, in 1965. But had it been a more permissive era, phrases like “likkle carpet burns” -- a Winehouse gem from “You Know I’m No Good” -- might have found their way into some of those classic Supremes breakup jams.
Motown was all about selling a product, the “Sound of Young America,” and yet its artists made universality sound extraordinary by using the tools available at the time: the plain-sight lyrical magic of songwriters like Holland-Dozier-Holland and Smokey Robinson and the slick rattle-and-stomp of house band the Funk Brothers.
Another key difference in the ‘60s was that few artists, especially women, wrote their own material. Amy penned much of Back to Black on her own; what she’s bringing to old-school R&B, more than the word “fuckery,” is an auteur’s touch. It’s there in her writing and her singing: slurry and stylized, with vulnerability peaking through the retro bravado and playful humor like black bra straps worn with a white tank top. She’s inserting herself into music that, in order to survive, needs to be a living tradition. On “You Know I’m No Good,” instead of playing the scorned lover, she’s the one doing the cheating. In the third verse, as she sits in the bathtub, soaking her feet and chatting with a boyfriend who’s parked on the can, she ponders what’s worse: getting busted for straying or finding out that your guy doesn’t care. It’s like she’s the girl Marvin Gaye sings about on “Ain’t That Peculiar,” only its complacency -- not stubborn, hopeless love -- that keeps him hanging on.
On the excellent title track, the “puff” and “blow” drug talk is again secondary to the heartbreak that drives much of the album. Winehouse made Back to Black after splitting from on-again, off-again boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil, who she’d later marry and divorce. “Back to Black” outlines the story -- he goes back to his ex -- and other songs provide the details. The cool rocksteady jam “Just Friends” is about struggling to stay platonic in the aftermath. With its deliberate tempo, “Wake Up Alone” speaks to how cruelly time treats the lovesick. The waking hours drag, and sleep teases with dreams of what you can’t have. The battle intensifies on “Some Unholy War,” a prequel or flash-forward that finds Winehouse vowing to hang with her guy until the bitter end.
It all becomes too much on “Love Is a Losing Game,” the closest Winehouse came to writing a standard. Outside of the lightly risque “five-story fire when you came” line in the first verse, the only 21st century touch may be the level of cynicism. In 1967, when the Marvelettes had a top 20 Billboard Hot 100 hit with Smokey-penned “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” they likened love to an unpredictable contest where it’s never certain who’ll have the upper hand. For Winehouse, it’s a push: There are no winners here.
One place Winehouse won big, though, was the 2008 Grammys, where she performed via satellite from London and scooped up five awards, including song of the year, record of the year, and best new artist. Winehouse’s triumphant showing at the industry’s ultimate celebration of respectability offered yet further proof that Back to Black isn’t a crass retooling of beloved baby-boomer culture. You need not know Slick Rick to enjoy this music.