Amy Winehouse, Lioness: Hidden Treasures
A haunting album, but a shadow of her former self
There's a moment right at the end of Lioness, the final album from Amy Winehouse, when she shows a faint glimmer of self-awareness which, sadly, arrived too late to save her from the course her demons had chosen.
She had just been wrestling with "A Song For You", the Leon Russell standard made famous by Donny Hathaway, the troubled soft-soul star who committed suicide in 1979. According to producer Salaam Remi, who subsequently added organ, harp and strings to the recording, Winehouse was teaching herself the song, reading the lyrics and guitar tablature from a computer screen as she sang. In all honesty, it's a bit of a dog's breakfast, unanchored in tempo, momentum and pitch, but when it finishes, she says: "Y'know what? Marvin Gaye's great, but Donny Hathaway, like, he couldn't contain himself. He had something in him, y'know?"
The unspoken subtext being that she, too, had something she couldn't contain, something that drove her creativity but which was also her Achilles' heel. For a moment here, she seems to realise the bind she's caught in, but these are the last words of the album, too late for her to act upon.
While Lioness is a far better posthumous collection than Michael Jackson's Michael, from almost exactly a year ago, it's a poor substitute for the high-octane musicality of Frank and Back To Black, created as it is from covers, outtakes, demos and the few new tracks Remi could scrape together, lent a modicum of homogeneity by smooth string and wind arrangements and the sometimes brutish imposition of terse hip-hop drums. They range from a chipper version of "Girl From Ipanema" drenched in Winehouse's scat-singing, to a promising demo of a new song, "Like Smoke", on which rapper Nas's tribute to her serves as a meagre substitute for Winehouse's own voice, largely restricted to wordless"dee-dah-dah" outlines for putative vocal melodies. But the hook is like an arrow to the heart: "Like smoke, I hang around".
Winehouse's own material is rather more revealing of the emotional turmoil in which she appears to have spent much of her time: "This deep regret I have to get accustomed to", as she puts it in "Tears Dry".
The best track on the album, partly because it is also the most sparse, is "Wake Up Alone", a lovelorn reverie set to brushed snare, rimshot and acoustic guitar, with the singer dreamily reflecting: "I stay up, playing out/Least I'm not drinking/Want a rub, just so I don't have to think about thinking." But then she wakes up alone again, the subtlest touches of horns on the fade-out accompanying her voice as it recedes into the cavernous, echoing distance, a ghost of desire floating out of reach.
Still on track: posthumous releases
Janis Joplin: Last complete album Pearl, released in 1971 three months after singer's drug-induced death, became her biggest seller.
Joy Division: Second and final studio album Closer released just two months after suicide of singer Ian Curtis in May 1980.
The Beatles: John Lennon demo of "Free as a Bird" polished up by McCartney, Harrison and Starr for 1995 Anthology 1 album became first new Beatles song in 25 years.
Michael Jackson: First of projected 10 posthumous albums of "new" material, Michael was released in December 2009.
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