Even though some will suggest Girl Who Got Away is as a strong stylistic departure for Dido — because of her and her brother-producer Rollo Armstrong‘s mixing it up with electro beats instead of their previous mostly-acoustic instrumentation, drawing attention to this point does the album little benefit.
There are no club bangers here of the sort you might anticipate hearing. Every opportunity to build any spectacular full-bore production — the type to which we’re widely attuned nowadays — is largely neglected in favor of minimalist computer swooshes, glitchy beeps and thudding bops while simple 808 drums chug along. As such, the songs feel insubstantial and tinny for no apparent reason. There is a sense of disingenuous trend-chasing too. Though no one would have asked for a Calvin Harris-produced comeback, to merely toy with a new style or genre seems to disservice fans and the music — especially following a substantial hiatus.
Throughout, thankfully, this production plays backup to Dido’s singing. And though there are no smash singles like “Thank You” and “White Flag,” her voice is still characteristically flawless and strong, relaxed and vaguely Celtic. She hits her melodic hooks with a casual ease that could feel cool if only there were any sense of attitude she injected. Instead, she is always calm and collected, even when desolate; not tonally, but emotionally flat too.
Similarly, the poetics here are brain-numbingly fine and handle mostly non-complex issues that can be summarized in just a few words: Like, letting love go (“No Freedom”), going with the flow (“Girl Who Got Away”), holding onto a tormenting love (“Let’s Us Move On”), and heartache and rejection (“Blackbird”). And those just are the first four songs. Throughout, with only few exceptions, her verse is neither awful nor brilliant. It just is, and brings one neither to exuberance nor devastation.
Unsurprisingly, and perhaps to its credit, the album is likewise consistent in its quality. Though there are few triumphant peaks, it rarely dips either. The songs flow together more like a cool breeze, passing along a mountain ridge line. It is airy and weightless, obviously moving but something you’re liable to forget or ignore as well.
There are low points, like the album’s first single, the Jeff Bhasker-produced “Let Us Move On,” which is good enough until subjecting itself to an obvious ploy for shameless broader appeal in recruiting rising rap phenom Kendrick Lamar on a verse. Aside from feeling awkward and obviously fabricated between recording studios thousands of miles separated, Lamar’s addition feels phoned-in and made of content similarly pointless to Dido’s throughout. (And so betrays the honest brilliance conjured on his Good Kid, M.A.A.D City debut for probably a decent check and genre-crossing promotion.)
And too there are peaks such as “End Of Night,” co-written by Greg Kurstin, which rolls through the verses with a pounding synth line to which Dido matches a steady rhythmic cadence. “You were careless when the beat kicked in / And careless when it left / And careless all the way / I didn’t see it till the end,” she spits before a fluttering club chorus.
Again, neither triumph nor disappointment reaches much extreme. Decency reigns supreme. Even the album’s closing, Brian Eno-produced “Day Before We Went to War,” though beautiful, is a resoundingly unimpressive follow-up effort to their “Grafton Street” from Dido’s last release. It fades out the album with airy minimalist composition layered in with Dido’s best lyrics here. It still does little to rouse any by-now drowsy listeners. Aside from the cheesy nature samples (water washing ashore to start, then birds chirping in the woods to end), like all else here it leaves no lasting impression.
One wonders, what is more frustrating a process: Creating a mediocre piece of art, or the task of discussing it? How do you convey its failure to conjure any lasting emotion or instill any impression? In a word? It’s okay.
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: From its start, “End of Night” has the album’s strongest groove by far.
Best Listened To: While riding in an elevator or being put on hold.
Idolator Rating: 2.5/5
— Colin Stutz