Saturday, 9 March 2013

Spurned Singers & Stalker Songs: An Album Pre-Review

Remember when I said I was going to review the new Dido album? 



It was only, like, a few articles ago.

This isn’t that review.

(I know, right?)

It’s time to declare some baggage.

I no longer know whether this is actually worth mockery in today’s slightly more accepting world of musical tastes – yeah, right – but I have a blind spot when it comes to Dido. Or, more accurately, I did have a blind spot.

In all honesty, I didn’t know she had a new album out until I saw it announced on daytime television, followed by Dido playing what appeared to be a song written by an extremely high Bob Marley that he threw out for being too generic.

That’s being overly harsh, but it appeared to have one six-stanza chorus repeated three to four times with only one or two verses in between.

Now, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum when I tried to re-engage the atrophied part of my brain that deals with reviewing albums; I started to listen to No Angel with my reviewing head on instead of my passive listener’s head, and it was kind of a revelation.

How is it that, about twelve years since I’ve listened to it last, I never – no, let’s capitalize this because it’s worth shouting – I NEVER REALISED IT WAS A SHOEBOXING FOLK ALBUM?

This realization is freaking me out, a little, to be honest. But some explanation is in order, and it comes down to two things; preconceptions and personal history.

Firstly, there are some weird preconceptions that came with listening to Dido back in the day; her songs got around more than a [SEXUAL METAPHOR] back in the day. I’d listened to Dido before I’d even realised it because of being a big fan of Sunday 8PM, with the sample of My Lover’s Gone on Postcards (complete with weird digital vinyl crackle, which completely re-situates the song).

Then you have to bear in mind that one of the major reasons No Angel was even re-released in Europe was because of Eminem’s Stan, which is really, really odd to listen to again now. Plus Here With Me was used in Roswell, which I remember watching at the time for no other reason than it was on.

So back then I approached the album as a kind of electronica-based Faithless offshoot, which completely coloured my perceptions right up until this very week, when I re-listened to No Angel as a different person and had, well, a different experience.

A somewhat uncomfortable experience, to be honest.

This takes us to the second part; personal history.

When I listened to the album before today, I would be instantly transported back to a ropey bedsit in east London, and a relationship that is best not discussed in an open forum – suffice it to say that like most relationships it had high points, low points, and had a defined shelf-life, plus a running time to which the soundtrack, for a lot of it, alternated between David Gray’s White Ladder – yes, please forgive me – and No Angel.

It was kind of strange to listen to it again a few days ago – and again today – and to hear a folk album with lyrics that I just found disturbing.

If you strip out the idea that there’s actual love therein behind the songs – and I’m sure there was – then the songs are about spurned lovers and stalkers, disguised behind well-produced melodies and folk harmonies.

You know what? Let’s do a track-by-track;

Here With Me is much about not being able to live without your partner as it is about someone who completes you (and, in a post-Twilight world, feels a bit Kathy-Bates-in-Misery; you can’t breathe when someone’s not there?)

Except that once it’s done with, Hunter is about wanting to be released from a relationship (and it’s rare that I’d say an Emmy the Great song handles something better than this, but 24 really does). So you skip dissonantly from I can’t live without you to Thanks, but I’m off.

And then when she’s actually gone, Don’t Think Of Me seems to be basically be saying well, I left, but you shouldn’t have fucked someone else, now, should you? I really love that there’s a disparance (title drop, ho!) between the official lyrics and the album lyrics, too, where I hear she cooks delightfully becomes the infinitely dirtier I hear she comes delightfully. So you’d think she’d be happy if this fella just, y’know, left her forever, right?

No, because My Lover’s Gone.

Seriously. (Except in that instance the lover’s, well, dead. Honestly, My Lover’s Gone feels like the most folk-y of folk songs on there, in an almost Wicker-Man-esque style.)

So now that Lover No. 1 has gone, Ms. Armstrong moves on to another – if you take this as a linear narrative, which I am doing for comic purposes – and we’re back to, well, obsessive love.

Seriously. (Again.)

All you want is right here in this room, / All you want is sitting here with you,

Except the man is – Of course! A cheating bastard.

For the love of god.

We’re going to take a brief break here for some Fenix TX, but we’ll be right back.

Doesn’t that make things better?

So does Thank You – which I have trouble saying nasty things about – which is about a good, decent relationship, with cold tea and towels. I’m sure they’re metaphors, but I can’t really process them at the moment.

If anything, though, Thank You marks the end of any notion of relationship-based sanity, because if you take that away then Honestly OK and Slide are, in fact, some of the best ways of describing depression in song form out there. Yes, really. Taken as a triptych with Isobel, this is arguably the real core of the album – less about how men are great but not great but are total bastards.

They’re also the more electronica-based tracks. Because screw folk, that’s why.

I’m aware that this is kind of approaching American Psycho levels of talking about individual songs;

So we’ll move on fairly quickly.  Because it’s weird that I’m No Angel comes between Isobel and My Life, as it’s almost completely tonally dissonant. It’s a return to pop to try to de-embitter the latter end of the album, but if there had just been an all-the-way-up culminating in I’m No Angel with a longer come down with the more Depression songs, it might have worked. 

But using a musical sledgehammer to crack a serious-song walnut so as not to leave people on an utter, utter downer.

Which is why Take My Hand would have been a perfect ending if I’m No Angel had been moved forward to after Thank You; it’s a lovely, beautiful piece of Rollo-formed electronica that doesn’t have quite as much of the relationship overtones; it’s more ‘this relationship is happening, it’s really good, let’s enjoy it’ than ‘this relationship is the best thing ever, except I want to leave, and now you’ve cheated on me, and I guarantee the next man will do this as well because life’s shit’. (If memory serves, Take My Hand wasn’t on the original release, either – remember, we’re back in the times of ‘special edition’ CD albums.

It’s weird to analyse an album that had so much of an influence in my earlier life (and, not sugarcoating it, my earlier love) but No Angel is, twelve years on, an extremely strange album to listen to in that it has a lot of narrative that’s not interconnected in any obvious way, and one song substitution – IMHO – could have changed the feel of the whole thing.

But, just for you, when I’m done with Richard Hawley, I’ll try out the new Dido album.

One last thing; in a previous post (and I’ll throw up a link if I can) I mentioned that my time of music not having a central part in my life could be traced to the period between White Flag and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

As old as I was when White Flag came out, I wasn’t really into Dido any more – the relationship that it was central to having finished, and because, well, Dido isn’t – to be fair – the kind of music I’d grown into liking. (And my tastes varied at the time, but it was more… I don’t know, ‘harder’ stuff, guitar-driven indie-rock, although I’m aware that to most people anything is harder than Dido.)

But since I’ve just written nearly one and a half thousand words about a twelve-year old middle-of-the-road BUMBLEBEE folk album, which is, effectively, baring my soul, let’s end this with a personal reminiscence about why I couldn’t exactly leave Dido behind when I left London behind.

A long time ago – and, really, since we’re talking about when I was last caring about music properly, everything’s a long time ago – I used to work in a low-rent chain pub in a low-rent area, where the whole Town-and-Gown problem was kind of pronounced because the university I was at was situated in a pretty dodgy area, except that given that hundreds of students flooded the area every year it was undergoing a strange period of gentrification.

So the pub I worked in was a strange mix of student employees, who tended to piss off after a few months, management – who had an even worse turnover, which tells you something about the pub – and a few local people who worked there, one of which I got on with very well in the truest, most platonic sense of the word possible.

She was a quiet, reserved person, and I liked her a great deal, but my one defining memory of her was walking down from the staff room to the kitchen and hearing her – thinking nobody else was around – singing along to White Flag, which was this moment that’s stuck with me forever because she was just being herself for two and a half minutes of a song.

I think because of that moment it was the last time I bought a single (and, having moved out of London a short while later, the album).

I don’t like Dido in particular, not just because of the reasons above – although they’re not a big part of it – but, for better or worse, her music’s a big part of my history. I’d be foolish to ignore that.

So watch out for that review, soonest. Because it’s either that or deep lyrical analysis of Us 2 Little Gods, and we don’t want that.

We really don’t.

- James

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