If ever there was a candidate for elven queen in today’s popular music scene it is Dido…fine-boned and slim with wispy blond hair and a subtle, haunting voice – like the breeze through the rustling leaves of Rivendell. It is one of those splendid ironies that it was the hard-rapping, chainsaw-wielding Eminem – more Uruk Hai or orc than elf – whose use of a sample from ‘Thank you’ in his masterpiece ‘Stan’ propelled her onto the global music stage.
Indeed, in a female pop world dominated by the big, booming voices of Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Leona Lewis, and the not exactly restrained performances of Madonna and Britney, Dido makes a compelling case for the power of the still small voice. A whisper can indeed be more affecting than a shout, and a ripple sometimes more compelling of attention than a wave.
Dido’s third album, Safe Trip Home, is surely her best – a work of great beauty, originality and maturity. It may not sell more than the 12 million copies of No Angel or the 9 million of Life for Rent that made her the biggest selling British artist in the world and it may not entirely dispel the charge that Dido’s music is a bit dinner-party-ambient, a bit too soft and languid to be taken seriously, but it deserves to.
Dido’s emotional territory used to be the yearnings of the single heart for the love that is worth sticking around for. ‘Thank you’, the song that propelled her to stardom, was a gloriously beautiful expression of thanks to a lover for the simplicity and gentleness of the way his love was expressed and its transformative power. After an awful day:
“I’m home at last and I’m soaking through and through / then you handed me a towel and all I see is you / and even if my house falls down now, I wouldn’t have a clue / because you’re near me / and I want to thank you for giving me the best day of my life.”
‘Thank You’ seemed to augur well for relationships, but, in Didoland, on the whole things don’t work out. Dido, however, unlike Bridget Jones, does not waste her verses bewailing the failure of men to commit or the dearth of appropriate suitors. Rather, she explores the complex of emotions that beset a woman seeking to navigate the unpredictable waters of contemporary relationships – sleeping with a married man who in turn has an unfaithful wife (‘Don’t think of me’); longing for a lover who slipped away without saying good bye (‘My lover’s gone’), vaunting one’s independence whilst yearning for some permanent connection (‘My life’), feeling deeply uncomfortable with oneself: “I just want to feel safe in my own skin.” (‘Honestly ok’)
In all this, neither Dido’s lyrics nor her music seem to make any moral judgements about others or herself: this is how people behave. As Proverbs suggests, who can explain the way of a man with a woman? Or indeed the way of a woman with a man? And yet, implicit in it all there is at least a self-questioning.
In Life for rent Dido acknowledges that it is her inability to commit that lies at the root of her problems. She won’t buy because to buy is to put down roots. Yet she knows that unless she does she will never be fulfilled.
“I haven’t really ever found a place that I call home / I never stick around long enough to make it / I apologise once again I’m not in love / But it’s not as if I mind that your heart ain’t exactly breaking… / If my life is for rent and I don’t learn to buy / Well, I deserve nothing more than I get / Nothing I have is truly mine.”
Dido’s territory was the whole ghastly gamut of pain and damage that is the fruit of the careless protocols of contemporary courtship. Heaven knows, love is a risky enough journey when our desire for commitment is clear and our hearts as true as our limited self-knowledge allows them to be. But how much more dangerous when the turbines of desire and the legitimate yearning for completion are not constrained by a clear sense of commitment to the ideal of monogamy.
In Safe trip home, Dido once again explores loss and yearning but, in the aftermath of her father’s death, the canvas is broader and her search seemingly fulfilled.
The album opens on familiar ground. She may not want to fall asleep alone but she’d rather wake up that way. Equally she knows that this is no recipe for the fulfilment she is looking for. Indeed, it is in that ambivalence that so much of the poignancy of the songs lies. As she puts it on ‘It comes and goes’: “some days I want love, some days I don’t.” Still, it’s difficult not to conclude that the lady doth protest too much – it is one thing to tell oneself that you can live without finding a soulmate when you haven’t found one, it’s quite another to actually mean that you have definitively set aside all yearning for such intimacy. And she hasn’t. Far from it.
In fact, ‘Look no further’ describes love found and the mature recognition that ‘forsaking all others’ does more than shut bedroom doors:
“Everyone I’ll never meet / and the friends I now won’t make / the adventures that there could have been / and the risks I’ll never take / but among your books and among your clothes / among your noise and fuss, I’ve let it go”
But the price is worth paying:
“I can stop and catch my breath / and look no further for happiness / and I will not turn again / cos my heart has found its home.”
“My heart has found its home” is such a simple statement but it crystallises much of the yearning of Dido’s earlier albums in which the desire for ease and safety and kindly domesticity abounded. The concept of ‘Home’ goes further. Home is indeed a resting place, but also a place of restoration and refreshment, of healing and liberation, the place where you belong. Home is, or should be, a place of safety. How different in tone than the megaphonic, anguished protestations of divas who cannot live without their lover. How different too is Dido’s emphasis on emotional contentment from the focus on erotic pleasure and emotional extremism that characterises so many popular songs. How many of us could sing that our heart has found its home? Even in Christ?
Of course, we might stand with Augustine and say that ultimately our hearts will find no rest unless they find their rest in God. And, yes, we would affirm that the true spring of living water that refreshes and restores our hearts is indeed the Lord himself ( Jeremiah 2:13). And we might agree that the pursuit of the romanticised, perfect ‘one’ is an idol of our Hollywood times but…is not such love a many splendoured thing? Does not the Song of Songs affirm that?
Safe trip home is of course much, much more than the sum of its lyrics. In its range of musical influence and its assured understatement of arrangement it compels the attention of ear and heart.
Photo: Kayt Jones
Mark Greene is executive director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.