She's a brave lass, Amy Winehouse. It's rare to find any artist changing their approach between albums, and virtually unknown if their debut was a huge success; but for her follow-up to Frank, Winehouse has shifted her emphasis from jazz to soulful R&B. It's a measure of her talents that the shift should be so effective: it has focused her talent on a smaller target, with the result that the impact has been multiplied several times over. With Back to Black, she has nothing to prove; each time she starts a song, there's no need to impress with technique; just a direct, immediate expression of the core emotion.
That directness applies equally to her lyrics, whose sexual frankness and pottymouthed articulation leaves no room for misunderstanding. Lines such as "He left no time to regret/ Kept his dick wet/ With his same old safe bet" act like turbochargers on the emotion, bringing an unmistakable modern slant to the loping Fifties R&B of songs such as "Back to Black" and "Me & Mr Jones", an ironic Noughties equivalent of Billy Paul's affair anthem. When the same candid attitude is applied to female sexual obsession in "Wake Up Alone", the result is like Millie Jackson crossed with Peggy Lee, a blend of unashamed assertiveness and languid vocal power.
The lack of shame is probably the album's defining characteristic. From the opening "Rehab" to the closing "Addicted", there's none of the blame-shifting or hand-wringing apologia that American singers routinely employ. In the former - all fat horns, R&B feel and tubular bells punching up the lines - she refuses flip, therapeutic explanations for her melancholy and drinking ("There's nothing you can teach me/ That I can't learn from Mr Hathaway" - Donny, presumably); and in the latter, she gives equally short shrift to a flatmate's lover who smokes up all her stash without offering to replace it. If a man has treated her badly, as in "Tears Dry On Their Own", she doesn't whinge, just chides herself for placing too much faith in him: "I should just be my own best friend/ Not fuck myself in the head with stupid men"; and it's clearly hard for her to feel too guilty, in "You Know I'm No Good", about keeping two lovers on the go.
Productions, split almost equally between Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, are perfectly sculpted to reflect the updated soul mode, with Motown-like grooves, Otis-style horn arrangements, and a rich, smoky Southern soul feel. But, for all its musical purchase on the past, what sets Winehouse's album apart from those of her peers is its rejection of genre clichés.
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