tremble clef

Monday, October 30, 2006

Amy Winehouse, "Back To Black"/"Love Is A Losing Game" (2006)

Amy Winehouse's new album Back To Black -- unlike her jazzy first record, Frank, this one's more indebted to Motown's and other girl groups -- begins on what is already a famously defiant note: "They tried to make me go to rehab/I won't go, go, go." The eleven-track record ends with an equally uncompromising stance, as Amy tells some woman that her boyfriend is bogarting her joint ("Tell your boyfriend, next time he around/To buy his own weed, and don't wear my shit down"). Back To Black therefore doesn't trace a transformation in its subject, nor work its way to much of a revelation. She loves her booze and drugs at the start, she loves them to the bitter end. (It's no secret that Amy, in real life, appears to be no stranger to substance abuse; for some listeners, this knowledge will make it hard to stomach the unrepentant attitude of the album, while for others it is largely irelevant and does not -- should not -- detract from what is overall a fine artistic achievement.)

The closest the album comes to providing a deeper insight into addiction is on the two tracks in the middle of the album, which also happen to be the best. The title track, "Back To Black" is track five, while "Love Is A Losing Game" is the sixth; together they are hence positioned as the heart, the soft center of the record.

And they do offer a glimpse into something like a reason for Amy's, or the narrator's, self-destruction. "Me and my head high/And my tears dry/Get on without my guy," Amy sings on "Back To Black," over a backing that XOLondon has accurately described as a kind of Shirley Bassey pastiche. "You went back to what you know/So far from all that we went through/And I took a troubled track/My arms are stacked/I go back to black." Given that "Rehab" has already established that "black" is an (obvious) metaphor for the abyss of addiction (on that earlier track, Amy announces, "Yes, I've been black/When I come back"), the song suggests that her spiral began when she was jilted.

On the following song, the gorgeous "Love Is A Losing Game," Amy accordingly catalogues all the ways love is a no-win proposition. The song moves subtly between various ideas of why exactly love is so hopeless; in the first section, built around assertions that "love is a losing game," the problem seems to be in the competitive nature of love itself, which necessitates winners and losers. In the second, where the refrain is that "love is a losing hand," it is the chips themselves that are stacked against her -- although it suggests that, with a better hand, she could have won. Here, victory is at least a possibility, if a largely theoretical one. But in the final, and perhaps most poignant section, there seems no real way to beat either the hand you're dealt, or the game itself: "Though I battled blind/Love is a fate resigned/Memories mar my mind/Love is a fate resigned."

If the album therefore begins and ends with Amy refusing to back down from her addiction, the middle two songs at least gives us a look into the reasons for that state of mind. But, in attributing her compulsion to that most human of emotions -- love, and its inevitable failure -- does Back To Black make Amy's situation more excusable...or less? Or is that even the right question to ask?


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