The late singer's Lioness: Hidden Treasures may lack the thematic consistency of her previous albums, but provide fresh glimpses of her remarkable talent.
Posthumous album by Amy Winehouse features unreleased material
During a YouTube documentary that accompanies the new Amy Winehouse album, Mark Ronson inadvertently raises an interesting question. "With her, there was no compromise in the studio," the producer says of the late soul singer. "The music was always better because of it." Taking her perfectionism into account, it's difficult not to wonder what Winehouse would have made of Lioness: Hidden Treasures.
For Lioness certainly isn't the singer's long-awaited third album and follow-up to Back to Black. Released in 2006, the latter was a pop-soul colossus that sold 11 million copies worldwide, won five Grammy Awards and made modern standards of songs like Rehab and You Know I'm No Good.
Of the 12 "new" Amy Winehouse songs on Lioness, just four were recorded by the singer after Back to Black. The same number again date from the recording sessions for her debut album, 2002's Frank.
Instead, Lioness is a compilation of offcuts, alternate takes and recently completed works in progress. It's the product of a trawl through the vaults of Ronson and Winehouse's other serial producer, Salaam Remi.
It's a hodgepodge, but one that's been collected with a degree of care. Remi re-listened to unreleased Winehouse recordings spanning "nearly 10 years". He describes the process as "therapeutic" and recalls thinking, 'Wow, someone else needs to hear that'." Ronson is just as reverential: he calls working on her cover of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow - featuring a vocal recorded in 2004, but fleshed out by the producer following her death - as "both sad and enriching at the same time".
Moreover, Lioness comes with the endorsement of Winehouse's estate.
"If the family had felt this album wasn't up to the standard of Frank and Back to Black, we would never have agreed to release it," writes the singer's father, Mitch, in the accompanying liner notes. For each copy of Lioness sold, a donation of US$1 (Dh3.68) will be made to a charitable foundation established in the singer's honour.
But as laudable as these intentions are, does the compilation actually add anything to Winehouse's legacy?
It certainly doesn't diminish it. Even its more questionable inclusions can at least be illuminating. Take Winehouse's cover of The Girl from Ipanema. This was the singer's first ever recording with Remi, cut when she was just 18, but it's never been heard by fans until now. Though clearly the work of an unripened vocal talent, from a historical perspective, it's got merit. There's a marked contrast between her almost girlish singing on this pre-fame curio and her pain-racked latterday performances. It's a difference that's both insightful and moving.
Similarly, few are likely to choose the original demo of Wake Up Alone that appears on Lioness to the Ronson production from Back to Black. But the earlier version, recorded in a single take, shows just what an instinctively gifted singer Winehouse was. How many others could summon so much emotion seemingly off the cuff?
Another Back to Black favourite, Tears Dry on Their Own, makes an appearance here in the form of an "alternate take". The more famous version is faster and almost deceptively peppy. The Lioness version, which was actually recorded first, is an orchestral ballad that places the focus firmly on the song's heartbreaking lyrics.
Elsewhere, there are fresh examples of Winehouse's ability to mine romantic drama for songwriting gold. Between The Cheats, a song earmarked for her elusive third album, features an opening couplet that no other artist could write. "I would die before I divorce you," begins the singer, "I'd take a thousand thumps for my love."
A track called Best Friends, Right? is just as revealing. Though often played live during the Frank era, this tale of relationship dysfunction has never appeared as a full studio recording before. "We only communicate when we need to fight," Winehouse sings sardonically. "But we are best friends, right?"
Another previously unreleased song called Like Smoke was written more recently. Tellingly, there's a sense of diminished expectations from the opening salvo: "I never wanted you to be my man / I just needed company."
Like Smoke is likely to provoke discussion for another reason.
Although it features a recording of Winehouse from 2008, her vocal was never completed. The singer's contribution amounts to little more than a few ad-libs.
Recognising the strength of Winehouse's melody, and spotting an opportunity to fulfil one of her musical ambitions, Remi recruited Nas to complete the track. The American rapper was the obvious choice for the task. Winehouse was a longtime fan of his work and the pair had forged a friendship in recent years. Sharing the same birthday, September 14, they had planned to celebrate together in Barbados this year.
The result is a musical cut-and-paste job, Nas's rapped verses linking Winehouse's choruses, but it works. The rapper's contributions feel fitting. As well as name-checking the singer's home district of Camden, he references one of her infamous dirty jokes - one that involves the intimate parts of a penguin.
Like Smoke isn't the only example of posthumous pottering on Lioness. Winehouse originally recorded her cover of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow for the 2004 romantic comedy film Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. The version here uses the same vocal, but Ronson has reworked the musical backing completely. His new, more ostentatious arrangement features playing from the Dap Kings, the revered New York soul band who backed Winehouse on several tracks from Back to Black.
There's no doubting the purity of the producer's intentions. "I feel like this vocal is Amy's parting gift to me," he writes in Lioness's liner notes. "[It's] as if she's saying, 'Oi Marky, here's some more vocal gold dust. Now, go to town with it'." But in striving to create one last Winehouse classic, Ronson comes perilously close to over-egging the pudding.
Remi approaches the same trap on Lioness's last song. While moving instruments around her London home in the spring of 2009, Winehouse picked up her guitar and began to play A Song for You. A signature of Donny Hathaway, perhaps her favourite ever singer, it was clearly a song that meant something to Winehouse. By the end of her performance, she was so moved that Remi recalls seeing her makeup run down her face. Fortunately, the engineer had thought to press record.
Listening to the recording now, the affinity between singer and song is palpable. However, Winehouse's spontaneous burst of emotion is almost swamped by Remi's full-bodied orchestral arrangement. Her raw and instinctive vocal performance might have been better served by a more understated production.
However, Lioness shouldn't be dismissed just because it features the odd dubious decision from Remi and Ronson. Nor is its lack of cohesion a deal-breaker.
The recordings here date from 2002 until March of this year. Half of them are cover versions. Lioness was never going to have the narrative thrust or thematic consistency of Frank or Back to Black.
Indeed, for all its faults, the album does seem to fulfil its fundamental goal. It offers several new glimpses of Winehouse's preternatural talent as both a singer and songwriter. There are times when Remi's gut reaction - "Wow, someone else needs to hear that" - is fully vindicated.
One of these comes on Halftime, a previously unreleased nugget from the Frank sessions. "Cause the music is a gift / And it's stronger than all else / Provides me with the bliss," sings the young starlet.
It's a welcome reminder that Amy Winehouse should be defined not by her self-destructive lifestyle or her tragic demise, but by her lifelong passion for music.
Nick Levine is a freelance music journalist based in London.