When I was young, I wanted to sing like a big, black gospel singer. Is that stereotype offensive? Maybe, but I was, like, nine, so I didn’t know any better. But now that there’s a British neo-soul invasion storming the U.S., I might have to amend that to also wanting to sing like a young, white British woman.
For instance, if I want to sing like Amy Winehouse, which I so desperately do, I’d really need to get my drink on. Four of the ten tracks on her American debut, Back to Black, reference alcohol in some way. The torchy title track, with its cinematic strings and echo-chamber bridge, is the gut-wrenching kiss-off of a woman who chooses her drinking-and-drugged-out blackouts while her lover chooses another woman (“You go back to her/And I go back to…”). Even the songs that don’t reference her vices directly are drenched in self-destructive heartbreak.
Thank God for Phil Spector. The legendary producer’s iconic “Wall of Sound” influence is all over Winehouse’s album (her debut, Frank, was allegedly more jazzy R&B and was not released in the States). Strings, chimes, hand claps, harp, and horns perfectly complement Winehouse’s lyrics without letting them weigh down a song. Winehouse’s powerfully deep, sprawling voice is often compared to the likes of Shirley Bassey and Sarah Vaughn and all the more impressive because she doesn’t rely on the melismatic faux-passion of so many of her peers. Combined with her inspiration from Motown’s '50's and '60’s soul and a lifetime’s worth of heartache and Back to Black adds up to a sound well beyond Winehouse's 24 years.
Luckily, she also has a sense of humor, as should any young, sassy soul singer. It’s hilarious when, in the old-fashioned-sounding standout “Me & Mr. Jones,” she blares out “What kind of fuckery are we?/Nowadays you don’t mean dick to me” and her girl-group harmonies echo “dick to me-e-e-e” in the background. She then sums up her reluctance to end the relationship by addressing the title character with “’side from Sammy you’re my best black Jew.” Yeah, I kind of love her.
So it’s all the more stunning when she hits you with the poetry of her words. I can’t help but quote the entire chorus of “Wake Up Alone”:
He gets fierce in my dreams, seizing my guts,
He floors me with dread,
Soaked to soul he swims in my eyes by the bed,
Pour myself over him,
Moon spilling in,
And I wake up alone
Reading about Winehouse’s penchant for canceling sold-out shows and booze-soaked escapades, you hope she gets her shit together. Hell, even her management company staged an intervention, but as she documented in the riveting opening track, “Rehab,” she just said “No, no, no.”