Death tends to romanticize art — particularly when you die at 27, bowing out in a slow, spiraled haze of pitiful decadence. Yet there’s no exaggerating the acclaim that’s always shrouded U.K. retro soul-stress Amy Winehouse’s 2006 sophomore landmark Back to Black, which remains one of the decade’s most consistently rewarding pop albums regardless of the controversy surrounding it. Racking up five Grammys and praise from critics, the album (and its note-perfect singles, like the pounding horn-stomper “Rehab”) quickly cemented the smoke-voiced siren as the figurehead of an old-fashioned R&B movement. But following her one masterstroke proved more than challenging, delayed in no small part by drugs, alcohol and relentless media obsession. That long-delayed, supposedly brilliant third album never came, and ironically, it’s only through Winehouse’s tragic death that we’re given a follow-up: Lioness: Hidden Treasures, a mixture of leftovers, alternate takes and seemingly random cover songs.
So, as with any posthumous release, the question with Lioness is, “How much, if any, of these ‘treasures’ should have stayed hidden?” It does seem apparent that Winehouse, ever the studio perfectionist, wouldn’t have approved of some of these unfinished and rough-sounding takes, but then again, there’s so much quality here that keeping these songs confined to a hard-drive life-sentence seems like cruel and unusual punishment. A few clunkers aside, Lioness proves essential for any serious fan, though probably a bit too scattered for a first-timer. Only two unreleased tracks appear (including the doo-wop inspired “Between the Cheats”), which means the collection works best as a historical document — first and foremost, it’s jaw-dropping to hear Winehouse’s voice morph from her smooth, clean pre-Frank croon to her raspy post-Black flow.
The set is frustratingly heavy on covers, and many are simply pointless. The nearly laughable version of “The Girl from Ipanema,” complete with canned strings and some curious scatting from Winehouse herself, is perfunctory at best. But on the other hand (despite the painfully out-of-tune horn track), a spirited take on the Zutons’ “Valerie” sounds even more natural in Winehouse’s hands.
Similarly divided in quality are the collaborations. On the iffy “Like Smoke,” Winehouse’s demo-quality vocal feels heavily auto-tuned and edited, and the guest verses from old friend Nas (which awkwardly reference Occupy Wall Street at one point), feel curiously out-of-place, as if they were piped in from a different album (and galaxy).
Most revelatory is the original acoustic recording of Back to Black stunner “Wake Up Alone.” It’s twice as great as the original — slowed-down, sexed-up, sadder, with a more nuanced vocal texture that gives added poignancy to lines like, “I stay up, clean the house/ Least I’m not drinkin’/ Walk around just so I don’t have to think about thinkin’.”