Dido ‘Still on My Mind’: Maternity and Amorous Ambivalence Inspire Long-Awaited Return

Many Americans were first introduced to English singer-songwriter Dido by her feature on Eminem’s 2000 hit “Stan.” Across the pond, however, she was already an astronomical force, with her two first albums, 1999’s “No Angel” and 2003’s “Life for Rent” both going on to make the top ten best-selling albums of the aughts. With an unmistakable voice and a unique take on the “folktronica” sound, she remained a firm fixture in pop until her last release, 2013’s “Girl Who Got Away,” whereupon she withdrew from the spotlight to take care of her recently born son. Over half a decade later, she now makes her return with Still on My Mind.” The album is simultaneously emotionally charged and easily digestible. It’s an articulate expression of a singular perspective, and a welcome return.  

The first line of the album is ‘I wanna wake up with your weight by my side,” and it sheds some light on the nature of the album as a whole. At first thought, one would likely assume the line to refers to a romantic partner, as it might. However, consider that Dido took her six-year hiatus to focus on motherhood. The “weight” she refers to may actually be the same weight that was once part of her own body, in which case the whole tune takes on a different light. The song, titled “Hurricanes,” is open-ended enough for either interpretation. Immediately striking is the stark clarity of Dido’s relatively untreated vocal. Faint, hushed harmonies enter eventually, lifting everything slightly above the tangible, joined by off-kilter, vibrating sounds low in the mix, until a beat drops in a cathartic release. Dido sings the refrain “Let me face hurricanes” as if she’s in the eye of the storm, reveling in the chaos.

A bulk of the album’s lyrics deal with the eternal struggle to cope with and make sense of relationships past. “Give You Up” finds Dido confident in moving on, insisting, “You don’t get under my skin no more / No, it’s gone.” Still, there’s an ambivalence that makes its way into the words, foreshadowing the seesawing that occurs through much of the record. Dido sings, “Got your picture covering up the cracks on the wall / But the lines won’t fade.” One one hand, this suggests that a person’s memory is tarnished, as the scars left from a relationship are too deep. Conversely, it implies a willingness to seek escape from one’s own trauma in another’s memory. Fans will surely take great pleasure in hearing Dido’s trademark falsetto after so many years. At moments, she sounds quite like “The Bends”-era Thom Yorke, and it comes across as a sort of eternal nineties stylistic imprint.

“Hell After This” takes a hard-hitting beat, the likes of which wouldn’t seem out of place in a Timbaland track. It’s testament to the power of minimalism immediately catchy, with every added layer instantly packing a punchy. There’s an intoxicatingly free, devil-may-care attitude. Seeming to have acknowledged the transient nature of romance in the previous track, Dido now takes on a decidedly different tune, declaring, “If I’m going to Hell after this / I’m gonna enjoy it while I can.” Yet, the following song, “You Don’t Need a God” reveals her still conflicted, demanding, “And send me absolutely elsewhere / And take me absolutely right here.” Comfortably museful, she especially shines as a singer on this track.

Even though Dido released her debut in 1999, on the cusp of a new decade, her music has always been sonically steeped in the nineties. This reaches the most outrageous heights yet on”Take You Home,” a dancey number with an almost “Night at the Roxbury” backing track. Add to this her languid vocals, exuding the “Nevermind”-type of unconcerned attitude that largely defined the era. She sounds as if flailing her arms in abandon in the middle of a rave, except a few levels removed from the actual environment — present only in spirit. “Some Kind of Love” shifts gears dramatically, and is arguably the emotional peak of the album. Again, the song takes up troubled reminiscence, but this time in the third person. Lyrics like “She put the records back in their place / And straightened her dress, and wiped her face” effectively capture the anguish of painful memories that can suddenly surface from the mere notes of a song.

“Still on My Mind” brings back the mutating synth sounds from the opening track, along with rippling arpeggios, then swelling strings, over which Dido’s angelic voice soars. As the title makes plain, this song is an unabashed counterpoint to “Give You Up.” Dido continues to alternate between reflective musings and caution-to-the-wind, dance floor grounding, falling into a groove on “Mad Love.” One of the record’s catchiest tracks, it’s a perfect case of the folktronica aesthetic with which she’s always been associated.  Like clockwork, “Walking By” gets reflective again. There’s a Coldplay feel to the track, and the chorus vocal melody bears a slight similarity, funnily, to Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger,” released the same year as Dido’s debut. You can hear the resolve in Dido’s voice at moments, and her dips into falsetto sound like fleeting moments of vulnerability held at a distance. Everything is at once compact and punchy, yet spacious and unconstrained.

Then, it’s back to the discoteque. “Friends” revives the sentiment of “Give You Up,” with Dido cooly clarifying, “Don’t call us friends” over an insistent beat, although with a hazy arrangement that gives the sense of being still trapped in the midst of distant memories, dancing in the fog. After all this emotional back-and-forth, “Chances” brings a moment of reckoning, in which Dido ultimately shrugs it off, reasoning, “I could stay up all night or go to bed / Oh, neither’s right or wrong.” The rather silly, bright synth chord backbone parallels the knowing irony of sentiment, while a sweeping chorus brings some closure to the whole affair.  With all this said and done, Dido returns to the topic of motherhood with the open expansive closer “Have to Stay,” in which she sings, “You were born with a smile on your face / And it’s been there everyday / When you cry I remind you that I’m never going away.” There could hardly be a sweeter sentiment to conclude on.

“Still on My Mind” is a cohesive album, eloquently capturing a specific emotional state at a specific time in life. The songs shuttle between sparse arrangements and propulsive indulgences, always segueing elegantly. The lyrics are generally thoughtful, at times provocative, and perhaps most significantly, never stilted. Dido wears her heart on her sleeve, and has the perfect voice to do such a thing. While most singers feel compelled to put on different voices within their characteristic sonic parameters, Dido stands out for how she simply opens her mouth and sings away, never to be mistaken for anyone else — and this quality will make the long-awaited album ever the more satisfying for fans.

Still on My Mind” is available March 8 on Apple Music.