Like her pseudo-historical namesake, Dido has had a tumultuous life. The London-born singer-songwriter born Florian Cloud de Bounevialle Armstrong saw a meteoric rise to fame after her first album No Angel saw international release in 2000. Her success persisted through the 2003 Life For Rent album but saw her become synonymous with blandness, similarly to her perhaps closest male equivalent David Gray (who also shot to fame in 2000). By contrast, with her next record released years later — 2008’s Safe Trip Home — Dido secured a degree of critical respect but released only the 44th best-selling LP of that year. With Girl Who Got Away, Dido returns, now 41, having delayed the record to have her first child in 2011, and promising a new, “fun,” and more electronic musical direction.
What is immediately striking about this fourth LP, however, is not how much has changed but rather how much has stayed the same. Dido’s brother Rollo Armstrong — of recently defunct dance act Faithless — returns as her principal co-writer and producer, and the opening track and lead single “No Freedom” opens with plaintive acoustic guitar and was penned with Rick Nowels, who previously wrote the major hit “White Flag”. So far, so standard for Dido — even an otherwise surprising co-writing credit for Brian Eno on closer “Day Before We Went to War” follows a previous effort of his on the last album. And everywhere, of course, is Dido’s familiar voice, still possessing a fragile kind of girl-next-door beauty, and still so often frustratingly unadventurous.
The truth is that for all the claims that Girl Who Got Away would reinvent the singer’s sound, the album is littered with evidence that Dido simply doesn’t want to be exciting. The failure to change up the people she is working with clearly reflect an unwillingness to experiment, but the sentiment is scattered throughout the lyrics. In the album’s title track, Dido sings that she wants to “move with the seasons / go with the flow / take it easy / and let stuff go.” A declaration of revolutionary intent, it is not. Similarly, the prettily subdued “Sitting on the Roof of the World”, written about her stumbling into huge fame and needing to be rescued from its downsides, has Dido unapologetically declare “I don’t want to be different / I just want to fit in.” You could very well argue that it is a refreshing antidote to the look-at-me wackiness of the likes of Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga, and you would would be right — but although it is one of the stronger songs on Girl Who Got Away it certainly isn’t the kind of excitement and escapism many people want out of a pop record.
To be sure, there are some new moves here, but they tend to feel half-baked, under-exploited or, in the case of Kendrick Lamar’s appearance on “Let Us Move On”, just a bit hackneyed. The hotly-tipped Compton rapper puts in a serviceable verse, but it has few identifiable links to the rest of the song and just feels strikingly out of place on what is ultimately a really very conservative, unexotic pop song like so many others of Dido’s which have worked well enough without hotly-tipped Compton rappers on them. The whole thing feels like something dreamt up in a boardroom at Sony rather than anything arrived at naturally, or for the actual benefit of the song at hand.
The strong moments, when they come, are actually very listenable. “Love to Blame” is perhaps the best effort because it genuinely does experiment a little — significantly, it includes the line “there’s time enough for new things yet.” In this context new things mean a pleasingly wobbly low end, a smart instrumental section which actually briefly brings to mind oh-so-cool Nordic electronic band Studio and all manner of odd bleeping effects.
If reinvention truly was Dido’s goal with this record then Girl Who Got Away is largely a failure. The few forward steps she does take will be far too few and too small to attract new listeners, but her frequent defaulting back to old habits will doubtless be enough to please her existing fans. For those of us with less of a stake in Dido’s legacy, it just remains for us to hope that she will one day take a real risk and work with new producers and writers who are willing to be critical with her, and to encourage her into making something more contemporary, ambitious, and more in keeping with her genuine talent.