‘Still On My Mind’: Dido Makes a Warm, Welcome Return (Album Review)
Six years after the release of her last studio album, 2013’s Girl Who Got Away, Dido – Ms. Florian Cloud de Bounevialle O’Malley Armstrong, if you’re nasty – didn’t really need to come back. She’s sold over 40 million albums worldwide, and is responsible for co-inventing the concept of a “stan” with Eminem. Frankly, she’s set.
But she chose to return, anyway.
Feeling no pressure to compete in today’s musical climate (“I didn’t have a record deal and no one was waiting for it,” she told NPR), Dido decided to dive in once more without limitations or expectations to create Still On My Mind, out on Friday (March 8), a lush return after taking time off to spend with her son Stanley. (Yes, a “Stan” REFERENCE – but not intentionally so.)
The album, co-crafted in its entirety alongside her brother Rollo Armstrong, is a family affair.
“I realized, very clearly that I just didn’t really want to do it if it wasn’t with him this time,” she said to NPR. “I just had a real need to do that and go back to the basics, where I’m just hanging out with my brother and we make some music. It actually didn’t take very much time. I would say it’s definitely been the easiest record I’ve ever made.”
The record is as personal as working with one’s own sibling, thematically speaking: the closer “Have To Stay,” for instance, is a short but heartfelt ode to her son, pledging her unconditional love across a relaxing, gently expanding ambient undercurrent. (It’s her “My Baby,” for those here from the Britney podcast.)
“I’m here as long as you need / When you show you’re okay on your own, I’ll smile and leave,” she humbly pledges.
“I don’t tend to look back, but I also don’t tend to look forward. I’m very much sort of in-the-moment person and I’m terrible at planning and I’m terrible at looking back,” she told NPR.
That said, she does sort of look ahead, beautifully, with the album’s introductory track, which is also the one that sold me from the very first play at the end of last year: “Hurricanes.”
“Let me not turn away from happiness or pain / Just not to run away, in my heart and in my head / Let me face hurricanes,” she vows on the track, which gradually shifts from a soft guitar strum to waves upon waves of stuttering electronica as she soldiers onward into uncharted territory with her love. She’s not exactly one to give in during times of trouble. There will be no white flag above her door, one might even say.
The song is overwhelmingly romantic – the line “I wanna see you as you walk through the door, and time will make us some ways less, and some ways more” destroys me – and it remains an arresting standout on the record.
For the bop squad thirsting for the album’s most uptempo moment(s): “Take You Home” is the album’s most dance-y offering, like a hypnotic, slightly melancholy Sophie Ellis-Bextor-meets-Moby cooly sung disco ditty.
“I can sing you a song, take you home, but I can’t seem to find my way home,” she repeats over and over again – an anthem for those feeling lost at sea, surely.
She veers into bouncier, breezier, almost Ace of Base-esque territory on “Mad Love,” and serves up some horn-y trip-hop seduction with the playful “Hell After This” (“If I’m going to Hell after this, I’m gonna enjoy it while I can.”) The chorus of “You Don’t Need a God,” on the other hand, recalls some of the haunting melodies from her past hits.
Speaking of the classics: “Give You Up,” with its giant sing-along chorus, feels like one of songs from the album that most closely falls in line with the lineage of prior global smashes like “Thank You.”
The sassy and (deservedly) cocky “Friends” is a catchy cut as well, blending Dido’s angelic delivery and dreamy production with some rather snappy lines (“I’ve done a hundred things you’ve only dreamed / So don’t come crying to me.”) For all that attitude, it’s misleadingly disarming.
There’s a charming mundanity to the lyricism, even when centered around internal and/or external conflict: “All I did today was wake up and watch TV / Another wasted day / But that’s alright with me, she sings on the song, co-penned with the genius Guy Sigsworth. “I could stay up all night or go to bed / Oh, neither’s right or wrong.”
Yes, these are the concerns of a pop star mother who largely keeps to herself. It’s undoubtedly true to her experience – and hey, laying around the house doesn’t mean Dido can’t still evoke profound feelings.
As a woman with an of-the-moment mentality, Dido manages to devastate with the particularly gutting “Some Kind of Love,” the record’s most poignant ballad. It’s a straightforward tale of rediscovering old records laying underneath a bed, playing them again, conjuring all of the memories…and recognizing that, despite the nostalgia, it’s never quite the same.
“The songs hadn’t changed / Every note just the same / But when she played them once again / All those words, those melodies / Like better days past and gone / Leaving her behind / With the promise of some kind of love.”
“I wanted to capture the feeling I still get from listening to music, just that rush like you don’t need anything more than this,” she said of the making of Still On My Mind in the album’s press release.
Stepping away from the music industry for several years to spend her time at home, Dido’s captured the essence of the intimate life she’s led since in a simultaneously fresh and familiar collection that nods, but never panders, to modern sounds and recalls, but never replicates, past glories. Above all, it’s an escape – if only for this moment.
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Still On My Mind was released on March 8. (iTunes)
Photo credit: Simon Emmett