The Enduring Sadness of Back to Black

Ten years after Amy Winehouse’s breakthrough release, the singer’s powerfully self-critical point of view stands alone.

Kieran Doherty / Reuters

When Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black arrived in 2006, it was hailed for carving out a space in mainstream pop music for recreations of ’50s and ’60s soul. The past 10 years of Adele and Lana Del Rey, “Blurred Lines” and “Stay With Me,” Mark Ronson at the Super Bowl and Mark Ronson executive producing Lady Gaga’s latest album, testify to Winehouse’s influence—or at least testify to the fact that she presaged a shift in public tastes.

So it might be expected that a decade later, with the sound of Back to Black—the horns, the woodwinds, the bass lines, the crackling drum tones—once again familiar, the album might sound less vibrant than it once did. No, no, no. Back to Black remains a singular classic thanks less to the traditions it harkened back to than to Winehouse herself—her voice, yes, but also her crushingly honest point of view.

The model of modern radio conquerers, whether heading electronic-dance thumpathons or golden-oldies updates or trying to straddle both modes like Gaga’s been doing lately, seems to require a flair for being inspirational. Resilience and overcoming are pop keywords, and when addressing a breakup or a hater, indignation—how could you do this to me?—is the default. Even Winehouse’s descendent in soulful moping, Adele, laces her ballads with comforting amounts of dignity and hope. The space between her belting “We could have had it all” and Winehouse muttering, on “Tears Dry on Their Own,” “We coulda never had it all,” is the dark margin by which Winehouse was so much more fascinating than her imitators.

The uptempo hit that introduced her to the world, “Rehab,” wrung joy out of the most dangerous kind of refusal: not a middle-fingers-up claim of independence, but a giddy declaration of self-knowledge. She’s declining rehab not because she doesn’t drink but because she understands exactly why she drinks—nothing medical, just untreatable phases of heartbreak. “It's not just my pride /  It's just till these tears have dried,” she sings in the bridge as Ronson brings the band to the height of its ecstasy, a moment of liberating clarity that will color the rest of the album.

Tears, as she sings later, dry on their own; there’s no hope for redemption in the love of another, no community of support except in the Ray Charles and Nas records she spends her solitude with. And it’s her fault. Over spindly guitars and a hip-hop groove for “You Know I’m No Good”—it could have been the album title—she spins a bracingly frank narrative about cheating on the man who expects to one day marry her. She thinks of him even as she strays, and he knows exactly what she’s up to—those rug burns aren’t from him. His indifference to her betrayal stings her, but she has no right to demand anything else.

The pathos here, the reason it’s all so compelling rather than ghastly, is the thick coating of empathy underlying her pain: She misbehaves knowing how it affects people, rather than out of obliviousness to how it affects people. “The guilt will kill you / If she don’t first” she says over the jazz-flecked reggae of “Just Friends,” where the story is that a man is cheating on someone else with her. For the deceptively pert “He Can Only Hold Her,” she sketches a relationship where the woman’s affections have started to dim, but the song’s sympathy largely lies with the guy.

Winehouse had a gift for clear but subtly complicated melodies, the kind that stick in the ear but also convey the cyclical love and shame she sang about, and she and her producers thought carefully about how to refurbish old musical tropes to fit her themes. The sickeningly beautiful “Wake Up Alone” is instructive in its use of the well-worn doo-wop template of guitar arpeggios and piano pulsing. Her voice flutters and dips as she describes her daytime distractions, but then she begins a descent as night falls; the arrangement drops out as she lands on the song’s title—she really is waking up alone.

Even more powerful is the title track, an all-time-great song, where the musical elements lock together to mimic the feeling of inevitability she’s singing about, a feeling that is at the heart of the album and sadly now at the heart of her public image. A breakup first sends her “back to Earth” and later “back to black,” but it’s the same thing. She believed in her own gravity, and she never, in song, considered escaping it. The world isn’t improved by reading the personal tragedy that unfolded after this album into its lyrics and composition, but there’s also no fighting it—the power that lies in hearing Back to Black is in the totality of its acceptance.