‘Back to Black’: A Richer Sound

News / Special Features / The Sophomores / June 15, 2017

Amy Winehouse’s debut album, Frank, catapulted a 20-year-old working class girl from North London into the media spotlight. By the time her sophomore album, Back to Black, was released three years later in October 2006, she had become a household name and was selling out arenas worldwide. Here, we take a look at how Winehouse transitioned musically between the two records and how her new found success impacted upon her personally.

Driven by a richer and more robust sound than her more jazz influenced debut, Back to Black was hugely successful for Winehouse, both critically and commercially. The album received four and five star reviews from all corners of the music press and was showered with countless industry awards and accolades. Back to Black eventually peaked in the top 10 of almost every major national album chart and today, it’s still the UK’s second best-selling album of the 21st century, having only been overtaken by Adele’s 21 in 2011.

On Back to Black, Winehouse expertly combined the bittersweet songwriting skills of ‘60s girl groups — like Martha Reeves & The Vandellas and The Ronettes — with Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” production values (courtesy of Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi), giving the whole thing her unique, modern twist by adding subtle nods to contemporary elements from R&B and hip-hop. The record’s grander sound lent itself perfectly to the arenas which Winehouse was now performing, while her confidence on stage had seemingly grown considerably since Frank. Winehouse was now performing night after night, sporting her trademark beehive hairdo, heavy eyeliner and short ‘60s style dresses, which now tied in well with her retro influences.

However, whilst musically Back to Black was a triumphant victory march for Winehouse, her personal life was spiraling out of control as she tried to cope with her fame, the lyrics on the record exploring this further. The album’s opening track and lead single, “Rehab,” became an international hit overnight, its lyrics describing her complex struggles with drug and alcohol abuse through the lens of conversations with family and friends regarding her behavior. On the track, Winehouse protests that her increasing substance abuse between albums is just the result of depression and heartbreak from failed relationships rather than any serious kind of addiction: “I don’t ever wanna drink again/I just, ohh, I just need a friend.”

The record’s title track also explores similar themes, as Winehouse is struggling to cope with loss and her demons after her ex-boyfriend has returned to a former lover: “And I tread my troubled track/My odds are stacked/I’ll go back to black.” But on “Addicted,” the final track on the record, Winehouse’s drug use is far less poetically portrayed: “When you smoke all my weed man/You got to call the green man/So I can get mine and you get yours.” At the time of the record’s release, Winehouse’s depiction of her own issues suggested it was simply the behavior of a misguided young woman struggling to cope, but after her sudden and tragic death in 2011 from alcohol poisoning, the lyrics on Back to Black obviously took on a much darker meaning.

There’s more innocent and tender moments on Back to Black, as well, which show a more reflective Winehouse, her guard down. The track “Tears Dry On Their Own” finds Winehouse slowly adjusting to single life and realizing that she needs to start accepting herself for who she is rather than be dependent upon alcohol or others: “I cannot play myself again/I should just be my own best friend/Not fuck myself in the head with stupid men.” And on “Some Unholy War,” Winehouse proclaims her unconditional love for Blake Fielder-Civil, the man who would go on to become her husband in 2007: “If my man was fighting some unholy war, I would be behind him/Straight shook up beside him with strength he didn’t know/It’s you I’m fighting for.” However, her dysfunctional relationship with Fielder-Civil is said to have contributed to her spiral out of control for a number of years, meaning Back to Black was the final studio album she ever recorded.

Today, Back to Black is one of the most popular and well known records released in the 21st century, having been immortalized by Winehouse’s tragic death at the age of just 27 years old. The record documents a chaotic and painful chapter in her life between albums one and two, contrasting a more complete and confident musical direction, sporting dark lyrics about her unravelling personal life. Back to Black has to be one of the best sophomore pop albums ever recorded and its reputation will surely grow in stature over the coming years as Winehouse’s cult status is written into the musical history books.

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Alexander Chilton

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