Tributes to Amy Winehouse are tending to center around two things: The Voice (raspy, smoky, sexy, old-school, a big bluesy voice in a tiny little body, capable of holding you spellbound without resorting to show-off diva tricks) and The Problems (drugs, addictions, fights, self-destruction, a knack for being her own worst enemy). What has not been mentioned as often as it should, I think, is that she was an amazingly talented songwriter. "Rehab" is that rarity: an extremely catchy pop song that isn't annoying when it, inevitably, gets stuck in your head. (In summer 2007, it got stuck in my head so often that I wrote a parody of it.) And in her ballads she found memorable turns of phrase to sing about that oldest of subjects, the pain of love. I particularly liked her use of alliteration: "I tread a troubled track" from "Back to Black," or "Memories mar my mind," from "Love Is a Losing Game."
"Love Is a Losing Game" just might be my favorite of her songs -- there is something almost classically beautiful about it, in the purity of its sadness and its hard-won wisdom. The lyrics sit perfectly on the music. Not a word is wasted.
Here is her demo recording of the song:
And here she sings unplugged versions of her four biggest hits: "Back to Black," "Love Is a Losing Game," "You Know I'm No Good," and "Rehab":
In performances like the ones in the video above, she was so present -- clearly connecting deeply with the songs as she sang them, she varies the phrasing and the melody from the album version. Seeing this, it's all too easy to lament the times she took the stage and wasn't fully present, due to drinking or drugs -- and also lament that we won't get any more Amy Winehouse performances, sober or not. We ask, how could she write songs that were so beautifully crafted and displayed such wit and insight -- then live a life that was so out-of-control and such an inevitable downward spiral?
She lived fast and died young, and while I find it ghoulish to speculate upon the appearance of her corpse, she did leave behind a beautiful body of work. And it's the work of an old soul.
As I read elsewhere on the Internet earlier today, Back to Black has just become the saddest album of the '00s.