CD Review of Safe Trip Home by Dido
Recommended if you like
Sarah McLachlan, Beth Orton, Everything but the Girl
Label
Sony/BMG/Arista
Dido: Safe Trip Home

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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F
or her third album, and first since 2003’s Life for Rent, Dido assembled a large and impressively eclectic group of collaborators and musicians to bring her sound to life: Brian Eno, Jon Brion, ?uestlove, Mick Fleetwood, Lenny Castro, and David Campbell are just some of the names that pop up in Safe Trip Home’s liner notes. There are a few surprising names on that list – but perhaps the album’s biggest shock is that it sounds, in the end, just…like…Dido.

This is not a bad thing, mind you.

It’s very easy to be cynical about Dido’s music – to write it off as mindlessly pretty pop from an artist whose work echoes the porcelain soul of Annie Lennox and Everything but the Girl, but lacks the wit and soul that makes their best work essential. Dido’s arrangements are seamless and baby-smooth, and her albums can feel the same way – just one long mid-tempo song, gliding slowly beneath her soft, passionless voice. This point of view is understandable, because if you listen to Dido without really paying attention – and hey, let’s face it, that’s how a lot of us listen to music these days – she comes across as a less interesting version of Sarah McLachlan.

Ah, but if you are paying attention, it’s quite a different story. Dido may have a weakness for frustratingly placid beats, but she addresses alienation, longing and heartbreak with a clarity that can break your own, and with Safe Trip Home, she moves to a new level. Part of this is due to simple, awful circumstance – Dido’s father succumbed to lupus in 2006, and her grief colors much of the album – but life’s experiences happen to all of us; it takes a songwriter’s eye to relive them in a way that’s both unique and universal, and many of these songs achieve that elusive blend.

Of course, again, if you treat Safe Trip Home like background music, it won’t do anything to make you change your mind; musically, it’s an album of exceedingly subtle touches, applied sparingly, and all used to support that cool, placid voice. Jon Brion’s influence occasionally burbles through the mix – he remains as fond of vintage keyboards as ever – but it’s never overbearing. Similarly, although the track Eno worked on, "Grafton Street," is one of the album’s best, nothing about it is particularly Eno-like – and if you don’t know going in that ?uestlove and Fleetwood lay down drum tracks on a pair of songs, you probably won’t notice their performances.

Dido

It’s all part of the plan, though – there’s nothing obvious about Dido’s music. Her songs reward scrutiny in a way that very few pieces of major-label pop product even try to anymore. "Grafton Street" sounds like bathtub music, but the imagery of lines like "No more letting you warm my hands, no more trying to take it in / No more saying goodbye for the last time again" is heavy with death and longing; similarly, "The Day Before the Day" seems like an innocuous pop song, but it ends up being about Dido’s sorrow for "trying to get to work on time" and missing "The most important thing you ever tried to say / I’ve lived my life without regret, until today."

And here’s where those endlessly pretty arrangements come in handy, because without them, Safe Trip Home would be an exceedingly difficult listen. As it is, however, the album opens itself slowly to the listener, seeping in over the course of repeated listens. It’s the kind of record you can play on a loop for the better part of a day without paying too much attention to it, only to discover later that you remember the songs better than you thought you did. It’s a step out of time with everything else on the Billboard charts at the moment – which is also not a bad thing – and if Dido seems likely to soon run out of fresh soil in the admittedly small patch of ground she’s chosen to cover, she can always be proud of this painfully honest, strangely comforting set of songs.

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