Posthumous music perils

The mystery of how much music Amy Winehouse managed to record in the five years between Back to Black and her untimely death looks to have been solved by the tracklisting of her “new” album Lioness.

A handful of recent songs have been padded out with cover versions, alternate takes and unreleased songs stretching back to 2002. Of necessity it’s a thing of threads and patches.

Posthumous albums are troubling entities, in which the sincere desire to give unheard material an airing is coloured by commercial imperatives.

The best are cohesive collections that would have been released in happier circumstances, such as Nirvana’s emotionally loaded MTV Unplugged in New York. Other strong contenders, such as Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill, were thoughtful attempts at giving closure to unfinished projects.

Doing it with dignity
An awareness of mortality can give such afterlife transmissions real gravitas — Johnny Cash’s lion-in-winter baritone justified two posthumous additions to his American Recordings series.

The secret is to allow the departed artist some dignity. Two months after the 1996 murder of Tupac Shakur, The Don Killuminati: the 7 Day Theory was solid enough, but his backlog of recorded vocals led to a decade-long musical version of Weekend at Bernie’s, with poor old Tupac’s corpse propped up and dragged around town, duetting with people he had never met, on albums such as the ominously titled Until the End of Time.

Michael Jackson’s Michael was just as macabre: less a lap of honour than a forced march through the wreckage of a burnt-out talent.

Perhaps the oddest posthumous career is that of Eva Cassidy, whose Songbird compilation topped the British charts a full five years after she died in obscurity. A half-dozen more posthumous albums have since hit the Top 10. Winehouse may have led a difficult, truncated life but at least she got to experience success firsthand. –

Dorian Lynskey
Dorian Lynskey works from London. Writer for Guardian, Q, etc. Columnist for New Statesman & GQ. Host Remainiacs podcast. The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell's 1984 out 30 May. Dorian Lynskey has over 31434 followers on Twitter.
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