Why, if you were of a cynical bent, you’d swear it was a publicity stunt. Almost exactly three years after her well received debut Frank, Amy Winehouse suddenly reappears (with a certain other mouthy, press-friendly female singer from London getting the kind of publicity that she could only have dreamed of).
Cue tabloid stories of record company worry at Winehouse’s alleged excessive alcohol habits, and paparazzi photos showing a dramatic weight loss. Then along comes a single which begins; “they tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no no”…
If indeed the conveniently timed newspaper stories are a PR stunt, it’s a shame as Back To Black needs no such media manipulation. Partly produced by man of the moment Mark Ronson (fresh from work with Lily Allen and Robbie Williams), it’s an amazingly confident second album which shows Winehouse moving on leaps and bounds from Frank.
The main difference is the sound and feel of the album – whereas Frank was all jazzy smoky ballads, Back To Black goes for a more commercial, poppy, yet still retro sound. Rehab itself is a great example – horns parp and blaze, strings classily swing and smoulder while Winehouse’s extraordinary voice purrs and growls about old Ray Charles records being better for her than the Priory. It’s Motown rewritten for the 21st Century, and it’s quite brilliant.
The old school soul references keep up throughout the album. The title track deftly steals its introduction from Jimmy Mack before spiraling off into a much darker place while You Know I’m No Good has a classy Philadelphia soul feel and some wonderful horn work. Ronson’s influence is unmistakable – it’s a long time since a producer and artiste felt this right together.
Yet this is still Winehouse’s album all over. Her voice is still incredible – every so often, you get a shiver down the spine as you realise that she’s still only 23 with the voice of a woman two or three times her age – but her lyrics have matured now as well. Apparently written while she was nursing a broken heart, the spectre of failed relationships looms large, especially during the gently skanking Just Friends or the aching Love Is A Losing Game.
She can still swear like a trouper too. Me And Mr Jones could almost be an old soul hit from the late ’50s until you hear Winehouse purring the quite magnificent opening line of “what kind of fuckery is this? You made me miss the Slick Rick gig”. The exuberant Tears Dry Up On Their Own is another highlight, marrying a glorious rush of a chorus with Winehouse’s husky vocals and an another smooth production job, this time from co-producer Salaam Remi.
It’s staggering to think that Winehouse was compared to the likes of Katie Melua when she first appeared – it’s certainly hard to imagine Melua extolling the virtues of cannabis, let alone in quite the same way as Winehouse does in the closing Addicted (“it’s got me addicted, does more than any dick did”), or indeed conjuring up an album with half the passion, fire and good old-fashioned soul as Back To Black. It’s a superb comeback, and one of the best albums of the year.