Review: Stuart Nicholson, Observer Music Monthly Oct 2006

She is pretty special. And she’d swear to that. The gifted singer’s penchant for four-letter words only adds to her essential Britishness, claims Stuart Nicholson. Watching Amy Winehouse live is a confusing experience. There’s this skinny, slightly gawky teenager (well, she looks like a teenager) on stage and yet, via an amazing feat of lip-synching the voice of a 40-year-old black woman from Brooklyn is coming over the PA.

It is nothing short of mesmerising, as you might expect of an artist whose quirky, eccentric and fearless lyrics explore avenues alien to most songwriters. Witness 2003’s debut album Frank, which thanks to risqué tracks ‘Fuck Me Pumps’, ‘Stronger Than Me’, and ‘In My Bed’, was short-listed for the Mercury Music Prize and earned Winehouse nominations for two Brit Awards.

What was particularly intriguing about the 22-year-old was how she manages to sound like a Fifties club singer while singing outré lyrics about life in contemporary London. This compelling duality is continued with a deft change of a backdrop on Back to Black, wherein she assumes the role of Aretha Franklin-style soul singer complete with doo-wop backing groups while again singing of her contemporary urban experiences. It should keep popular culture students busy for the next 20 years in the way that Mick Jagger in the mid-sixties prompted countless theses on the subliminal black person within. None the less it works – even though this area of pop culture has been mined remorselessly for the past 50 years – by dint of its clever melody lines and smart lyrics.

As if to emphasise just how wise she is, Winehouse has kept each track to around the length of a 45 (remember those?), enabling her to make her point and move on without running the risk of outstaying her welcome. So whether it’s the rousing, churchy ‘Rehab’ in which Winehouse describes how her father tries to wean her off alcohol (‘Try to make me go to rehab/I say no, no, no’), or the serious soul of ‘Love is a Losing Game’, Back to Black isn’t shy of betraying its debut to pop.

What the American market will make of it, though, is anybody’s guess. Indeed during ‘Me and Mr Jones (Fuckery)’ I had this crazy fantasy in which I pictured the effect of this song being pushed on the American FM pop stations. Given the uproar in middle America a couple of years ago when Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson’s left nipple at the SuperBowl, trying to imagine what our stateside friends would make of Amy Winehouse and the work ‘fuckery’ was worth the price of the record alone. The medium may be American but the message is very British, which is why if Amy Winehouse continues in this fashion she could end up being a national treasure.