Back To Black might be most British thinking, American-sounding record ever made. As much as it’s become the touchstone for generations of worthy singer-songwriters – although none yet has come within a mile of Amy Winehouse’s tragic charisma – it’s remains tainted by all the fairy tales that make this messed up island what it is, for better or worse.
It wouldn’t be anything of course without it’s songs, this time penned by the singer herself without the help of the retinue who conjured up the counterfeit scat of 2003’s Frank. This was a new world, filled with knuckle-biting, car crash lyrical honesty and intimate, graphic references, the veil dropped to reveal a flawed and vulnerable woman in close up.
That Mark Ronson had hired slick soul revivalists The Dap Kings and that their New York studio had been the recording processes’ epicentre is incidental, not central to the myth that’s grown up around it, one overshadowed by Winehouse’s unfortunate death and then subsequently immortalised in posthumous documentary after documentary.
It’s an album made great by accidents and streaks of genius. Winehouse created the slapping, sassy hook to Rehab one day whilst walking down the street with Ronson; some writers have spent their entire lives in the hope of dreaming up a pale facsimile. Then there’s that voice; part Supremes, part North London, part caged Mynah bird, everything it touched became sixties music for the noughties, Motown’s sugared romance now filled with a cocktail of jealousy, breakdowns and blotting it all out with whatever there was to hand.
Listening to all this felt like hearing the greatest peep show in town; You Know I’m No Good made you fear this modern-day Cleo, a hedonist’s hedonist tottering around on heels the size of a skyscraper with a half naked chick tattooed on her right arm. Such was the magnetism that the ballads and torch songs felt all consuming, Love Is A Losing Game and the title track making that sense of grief seem less explicable to straights, on how the bones of bad romance are exposed for those who can’t stop themselves being hit every time when on a six card trick.
Redemption was another woman’s problem. From the easy passage of Addicted to Wake Up Alone’s hallucinatory resignation, the inglorious pile of emotional debriswere just a race to the bottom of a heart or a glass, whichever seemed easier. Still, this is a record that never gives up; at its lofty, absolute peak with Tears Dry On Their Own, the story was told in monochrome, it’s crescendos as exciting as a liquor store hold up.
Back To Black is that thing, that story which you have to be British to truly understand, the combination of misty eyed nostalgia, wanting others to break so you can out them back together again and the endless jealousy and fear of missing out into which we’re raised. And through it came the realisation that Amy Winehouse always knew deep down that the real queens of this country will never wear a crown.