Back to Black: Amy Winehouse's Only Masterpiece
published: 17 /
Donald Brackett's new book might claim to focus on Amy Winehouse but Fiona Hutchings fears his attempts at context just cloud the issue
When I say Amy Winehouse what springs to mind? The precariously piled up beehive? Lashings of black eyeliner? Tears and tattoos and a tiny woman increasingly overwhelmed by her own life? Or last but by no means least, an amazing voice captured on two fantastic albums?
To Brackett it seems the latter has been far too overshadowed by the former and in his book he intends to shine the spotlight of attention where it should go, the masterpiece that is Winehouse's second and final album,'Back to Black'.
I wanted to review this book because I love books about musicians and their work. In my collection I have plenty of books relating to artists whose music I don't particularly enjoy because the stories or their lives and creations are still fascinating and relatable regardless of whether I actually like the music. Where Winehouse is concerned, however, I did enjoy her music and her voice and the songs themselves sounded like they came from a much older, world weary woman who had seen, done, loved and lost it all.
I remember being very surprised the first time I actually saw her and realised just how young she was. 'Back to Black' was released the year I became a mother and several tracks seem to soundtrack a jumble of sleep-deprived memories from that time.
So I started this satisfyingly slick-looking book (just short of three hundred pages, with several pages of colour photos) with high hopes. I'd not finished the accompanying press release before they dimmed slightly.
"In the end, it's the songs that make 'Back to Black' which go far beyond our potentially prurient fascination with the unique singer's early demise five years ago and instead bring vibrantly to life the surprising pop majesty she personified."
Okay, I take the point and I'm not adverse to the odd tongue-twistingly, satisfying sentence, but this is all sounding slightly more academic in tone than I was anticipating. I wanted thought provoking and engaging; not an academic thesis.
I dive into the book itself and it doesn't improve, sadly. In the introduction, Brackett invokes names as diverse as Francis Bacon to F.Scott Fitzgerald to Sid Vicious as he considers the need to dismantle the mythology of the artist, whilst also acknowledging that "in some special cases, the life lived and the art produced were so synonymous that they need to be examined in tandem in order to even remotely succeed in the task of fully appreciating and assessing them."
I feel like my head is spinning and my eyes are darting around looking for more about Amy among all these thoughts on many other well known names
Brackett is very clear that he doesn't want to devote anymore space to the more lurid, tabloid headlines that dogged Amy even after her death. He wants to concentrate more on the music which is fair enough, but he does concede that, of course, her private life impacted on the music she wrote. What I am less keen on is the general vibe I get that somehow Winehouse's messy private life is beneath his consideration, and for what it's worth I believe you have to take the artist as a whole to have any chance of understanding their eventual masterpiece; if you start discarding parts of their life and choices you will distort the picture you are trying to paint.
In his determination not to overly romanticise the story of a dead artist I fear he goes too far the other way, stripping back layer after layer until there is little left.
What this book works extremely hard at doing is placing 'Back to Black' in context. Brackett puts a huge amount of time and research into looking at the artists that inspired Winehouse.
Providing wider context is a very valid part of a book like this one, which examines a particular album, but my biggest criticism of this book is that the context totally overwhelms the original focus of the book. The comparisons with the likes of Carole King, the Shangri-Las and Anita O'Day, among others are interesting, but there is so much space devoted to this, in particular to Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, that I am left wondering if Brackett wouldn't have been better writing a book about them instead. These are the sections where it feels like his real passion shines through, and if nothing else, it's inspired me to find out more about Miss Jones, starting with the well-received documentary currently available on Netflix.
Approach this book perhaps more as a meditation on how generations of female artists have learned from what went before, and the role often male producers have had on their careers, rather than a book just about Amy Winehouse and her final album; it will be more satisfying that way.
As it stands, this book is trying to be very focused on both one woman and on one album but fails to do either because the context Winehouse is placed in overshadows the subject. I don't think it's clear what impression the author wants to leave the reader with. I am just left confused and both underwhelmed and overwhelmed.