Amy Winehouse - Back To Black - Review
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critics' view

Amy Winehouse opened her second album stating defiantly that she wasn't going to rehab – no, no no – then spent the next nine songs documenting why a spell of rest and recuperation might not be such a bad idea after all.

If this was the decade in which celebrities bared all – thanks to websites, cameraphones, the pages of Heat – then Back to Black was its musical equivalent, spilling gin-soaked tales of heartbreak, drugs and depression like they were going out of fashion. You Know I'm No Good has our heroine crying on the kitchen floor, enduring tedious sex and getting caught by a lover with tell-tale carpet burns … and that's just in the space of three minutes.

Back to Black spoke a street-smart, noughties language (from scoffing "chips'n'pitta" to opening lines as gobsmacking as "He left no time to regret/Kept his dick wet"), but it was Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi's faithful 1960s Motown stylings that eased such tough tales into the living rooms of millions. Critics will argue that Back to Black is a coffee-table album – shamelessly retro, lacking in musical innovation. But its strengths were never about tearing down sonic boundaries. This was articulation of an inner pain to rival that of her idols – from Billie Holliday to Sam Cooke – sang with an authentic soul voice that had the strife of a collapsing relationship etched across it. Put simply, the only thing Back to Black had in common with a coffee table was an edge.

This edge was to be Winehouse's downfall. In a tragic case of life imitating art, she ended up living out the worst aspects of Back to Black's subject matter, stumbling around Camden to the glee of websites, cameraphones and, indeed, those pages of Heat. But during the recording of the album, Winehouse managed to save her dark side for the music, combining misdemeanour with melody, scandal with soul. That she will ever pull off such a dazzling highwire dance again – to come back from black, as it were – seems a sadly distant hope.

Tim Jonze
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