Bear with me.
We're going to have to approach this from a circuitous route, taking in Uwe Vandrei and Lewis Parker. I know that this is fast becoming a standard tactic for me – approaching the topic without approaching the topic – but it's the only way I can think of to actually address this album properly.
In my previous article about Dido I tried to situate the music within the politics of obsession and loss, and also tried to hypothecate (thanks, Som!) that if you shifted a couple of the tracks around, you would have three quarters of a narrative of obsession followed by some of the most impressive expressions of the ups and downs and highs and lows of depression in musical form. That's what, for me, Dido seems to do in album terms; three quarters radio-friendly obsession, one quarter musically interesting songs on another topic.
The ratio varies, a little, especially on Safe Trip Home (maybe for obvious, tragic reasons), but it's there the same as Eminem spent a decade releasing singles on the comedy/serious/comedy/serious pattern. It's back to the business of obsession as usual, however, with The Girl Who Got Away, just now more with a Catchy! Electronic! Beat!
In obsession terms, however, it's kind of weak tea.
In the autumn of 1994, Uwe Vandrei committed suicide.
This isn't meant as an offhand statement for its own sake; Mr Vandrei's suicide was tragic, and from everything I've been able to put together using THE! INTERNET! it was down to the politics of obsession taken to a horrific extent. (There's some conspiracy theories out there, too, but you may attach as much credence to them as you like.)
Uwe Vandrei was, by all accounts, a committed – perhaps too committed – fan of Sarah McLachlan. He alleged that his love letters had been the basis for Possession:
But before the case could be taken to trial, Uwe Vandrei sadly committed suicide.
By comparison, the narratives of obsession and loss you find within three quarters of a Dido album are oddly tragic in their weakness; Possession is about loving someone so much you can't hide, won't go, won't sleep, can't breathe... Sorry, that's a poor joke, but Possession is dark and deep where Here With Me is – underneath all the creepy – a bit celebrative. The closest I can find to this kind of darkness within the Dido Obsession Canon – boom – is Don't Believe In Love, the sheer overwhelming sadness of losing the ability to actually love rather than have it heal you and hurt you over and over again in an ever-ending cycle.
Five years on, and although the methods have changed, the narratives are basically the same.
In a slightly patronising way.
I'm looking at you, Let Us Move On.
Way back when in the time of 1999, there was a film, and that film was called Plunkett and Macleane. P&M is not, by anyone's standards, a dazzling exposition of cinematic content, and watching it now it's quite badly dated in some ways – especially the Murray Lachlan-Young cameo at the end doing his poetry thing. (Sadly, YouTube does not have this amazing moment for your delectation.)
P&M, however, had an amazing score by Craig Armstrong that was of a quality far exceeding the worth of the film (and, in all honesty, it was as much about giving Ridley Scott's son Jake his first (of two) feature film directing opportunities as it was about getting Robert Carlyle and Jonny Lee Miller back together again for the first thing since Trainspotting). Elements of this score still pop up everywhere from Masterchef to Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, Dark Angel,sports matches and superhero film trailers.
An amazing score, bar one track – in my humble opinion – and that track is Houses in Motion.
(Sidebar; all these years of motion and I didn't realise it was a Talking Heads cover. I'll hand in my card at the door on the way out, head hung in shame.)
Which brings us to Lewis Parker, because while this song isn't necessarily as bad as I'm making it out to be (and I think it fucking sucks) it simply doesn't fit and has no logic with the rest of the score.
A lot like Let Us Move On.
This isn't a new problem, though; there was the same trouble with Burnin Love on Safe Trip Home; take them out of the context of the album and they're fine songs (well, you might like them) but it was completely out of place on Safe Trip Home and while it's less so here (which is partially form over function, what with the electronica and all) it's still... Odd. Not bad, because it's a fine song, but not good because it's like a jigsaw piece with no edges. Then you dig a little deeper and find that Kendrick Lamar – guesting on a Dido track – is currently shopping a remix of his single Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe and... My brain asplode, really.
One thing I'd never wanted to do, by the way, was highlight anyone else's review, but in the case of the Digital Spy review I have to point something out; Let Us Move On is, according to them, 'a welcome reminder that, 14 years on, Dido can be as badass as the rest.'
It's really not.
The rest of the album has this weird disconnect to it – truly cognitive dissonance, because within five songs you go from Sitting On the Roof of the World which is cheery as you'd like to Happy New Year which is really, really not, and neither is Loveless Hearts.
In some ways, I kind of resent my own position at this point, because – as someone who ended up being a Dido fan because, as discussed before, you can't choose what music stays with you every time – I feel pretty qualified to review this album, having listened to every previous release (although not, apparently, the unreleased tracks – tragic). This is not a plaudit I would ever have actively sought; Ex-reviewer turned Dido Expert – but, well, here we are.
It's really frustrating, too, because like every Dido album there are some songs that are genuinely deep, or interesting. There's the... I don't want to say dross, but let's say dross anyway, the radio-friendly mothers-day songs with the catchy choruses and less acidic messages, but I tend to take the container ship theory in this case; there are lots of precisely-shaped containers that fit together, and then there's the breakbulk – the stuff that doesn't fit anywhere and just causes trouble.
Day Before We Went To War is, for example, more interesting than the title perhaps suggests. It's a weird track to end an album on, in some ways, because it has a genuine message (or at least an attempt at a genuine message) that conjures up an atmosphere by interesting lyrical usage and backing instrumentation.
Contrast that against something like Blackbird and you can see why the album is oddly paced, spaced and put together. The electronica-folk mix is decidedly not a bad thing – it's basically making a whole album out of Take My Hand – and, equally, experimentation is no bad thing. But it makes for patchy, disconnected albums where the brilliance is blockaded and the lyrics are brocaded by the need for the narratives of obsession to make their usual appearances.
Because of this, it's more or less impossible to do a track-by-track because the songs bear little or no relation to each other in a narrative sense – as singles, maybe, they'd be pickable a-partable, but as an album it's like being told a story about someone's ex-partner except the storyteller keeps breaking off to tell you about how they went travelling or how other partners have screwed them over and how they've just recently found the perfect person for them and then suddenly, The War.
You know what?
If you want Dido without the obsession – or, at least, without most of the obsession – you could do worse than this:
If I've got it right – and I'm kind of new to this Spotify linking thing, but hey – then you should have one or two narratives of loss, some of the bitterer, more acidic stuff and some depression-in-song-form just to round things out. Also, a single B-Side – Paris – which is, in its own way, pure sadness.
Don't say I never give you anything, mais non?