A warm cup of tea on a cold day – this is how I’d best sum up Dido. Though unassuming both in the recording studio and out, she’s managed to feature twice on the list of the top ten best-selling albums of the noughties and wrack up four BRIT Awards. Her first two albums No Angel and Life for Rent topped the UK year-end charts in 2001 and 2003, and the two albums since, Safe Trip Home and Girl Who Got Away, were moderate commercial successes despite not reaching the heights of her early career. It’s safe to say that she’s earned a spot amongst the greatest British solo artists, but it’s been six years since her last album– does she still have the hit-making chops, or has the tea gone cold on Dido’s musical career?
Still on My Mind, released last Friday, doesn’t deviate significantly from the Dido formula of signature wispy vocals on soft acoustic instrumentals that has served her so well. In fact, many of the tracks wouldn’t be out of place in her debut album No Angel. Both place greater emphasis on the instrumentals, opting for particularly percussion heavy numbers and extended breaks within songs. Thematically, however, the two records are very different. No Angel, first released when Dido was still in her 20s, has a focus on the highs and lows of a relationship and accepting that she isn’t perfect, with a few slides into narratives of low points in her life and recognising the lack of permanence in these. Coming two years later, Life for Rent also has many titles about relationships, but Dido begins to explore different themes. Particularly in the titular track ‘Life for Rent’, we see a more retrospective and contemplative side to Dido as she croons “But if my life is for rent / and I don’t learn to buy / Well I deserve nothing more than I get ‘cause nothing I have is truly mine”. This side becomes more and more prominent as time goes on; third album Safe Trip Home focussing heavily on Dido’s loss of her father, while fourth album Girl Who Got Away deals with her almost gleeful acceptance that she’s not quite “sitting on the roof of the world” anymore.
This trend continues to Still on My Mind. Opening track ‘Hurricanes’ is harrowing, yet oddly uplifting; lyrics “Let me face the sound and fury / Let me face hurricanes” are fitting as the song progresses with various instruments being added in succession to a cacophonous climax followed by silence. Following four albums of relationship tumult, it seems from this track that Dido has finally found some stability in her relationship and is ready to face hurricanes with her husband. It’s almost a completion of a five-album story arc, and many of the later songs seem to be reflections on life experiences rather than of how she currently feels.
The lead single ‘Give You Up’ perhaps strays furthest away from what we traditionally expect from Dido. It’s one of the few Dido songs with a piano led composition, and features backing vocals that put you in mind of Hawaiian folk music. With as much serenity and delicacy as with all her lyrics, Dido talks of breaking away from an unhealthy relationship and accepting the consequences – “I found a way to let you go / It’s gonna rip your heart out”. Though maybe not quite the relentless earworm of previous singles like ‘White Flag’ and ‘Thank You’, ‘Give You Up’ still gets you humming for hours after.
More upbeat mid-record tracks ‘Hell After This’ and ‘Take You Home’ both deal with positive experiences in relationships in a light sense. While far from being dancefloor fillers, they’re needed breaks from slower, more sombre tracks. The final few tracks are very familiar Dido. Each of her albums feature one sassy, musical version of a subtweet song and this manifests in ‘Friends’ which is a very enjoyable, easy-on-the-ears pop ditty. Dido closes the album with ‘Have to Stay’, a poignant ode to motherhood that most directly reflects her current stage in life. The instrumental is very gentle, allowing Dido’s voice (her greatest asset) to connect to the listener. “I’m here as long as you need / When you show you’re / Okay on your own / I’ll smile and leave” perfectly encapsulates the feel of the song, and the general theme of content in the permanence of motherhood.
Still on My Mind was a personal project for Dido – much of it was recorded at the home of her brother and long-term co-producer Rollo, and produced by the two of them. The production quality, nonetheless, is one of the best from her albums so far. The album holds up well to all releases across her 20-year career and was worth the wait. Confident serenity permeates every song, and Dido’s delicate vocals are showcased as always. How long will it be until Dido’s next release? Who knows, really. She’s quite upfront about not feeling any pressure to create music and is driven by a love of creating music with her brother. But this album shows that Dido can still produce quality records and achieve success in the current market (it’s too early to give a chart position, but Still on My Mind was 3rd in the mid-week update). She’s going on tour for the first time in 15 years this year, and I’m looking forward to what comes next for Dido, even if it’s another decade until we get some new music.