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The lyrics are still gloomy, but the catchy tunes of “Life for Rent” and “White Ladder” are long gone
IF EVER you wondered how long a decade could be in the music industry, look at the ten highest-selling albums of the 2000s in Britain. Amy Winehouse, whose “Back to Black” was the third-most popular record of the decade, died of a drug overdose in 2011, a tragedy that feels distant now. George Harrison was still alive when “1”, the collection of chart-topping Beatles singles, was released. Keane and Scissor Sisters, two pop groups whose debut albums dominated British airwaves, have both been on hiatus since 2012. In fact, the only artists who featured on that list and have produced records recently are James Blunt and Coldplay.
Until March 8th, that is, when Dido and David Gray both released their first albums in nearly half a decade. Ageing mothers and fathers everywhere must be delighted. Few cars come with CD players anymore, but if you were to borrow a British family vehicle with a noughties number-plate, there is a reasonable chance that the glovebox would contain “No Angel”, “Life for Rent” or “White Ladder”, three of the ten highest-selling albums of the decade. Their songs were perfectly suited to a Sunday evening drive or a morning school run. No pop lyrics evoke a grumpy British breakfast better than: “My tea’s gone cold, I’m wondering why I got out of bed at all / The morning rain clouds up my window, and I can’t see at all / And even if I could it would all be grey.”
Those lines, from Dido’s “Thank You”, are the best-known ones by either singer outside of their home country: Eminem sampled them in “Stan”, an epistolary rap song about a stalker. American audiences might also have heard Dido or Mr Gray crooning about unrequited love on television shows such as “How I Met Your Mother” and “The OC”.?
Yet even though the pair had a couple of top-ten albums in America, their most loyal listeners are moody Brits. Their songs are full of people feeling pangs of love while sitting in dingy flats or strolling through parks at dusk. Both Dido and Mr Gray are obsessed with Britain’s murky light. In “Babylon”, Mr Gray’s most successful single from “White Ladder”, he thinks aloud: “Sunday all the lights of London shining, sky is fading red to blue / Kicking through the autumn leaves and wondering where it is you might be going to.” “The One I Love”, another of his hits, takes place on a “perfect summer’s night”; “Lately” unfolds as a “new light twists on the bridge”. “Hunter”, one of Dido’s earliest songs, starts “with one light on, in one room”. Perhaps it is why both artists are staples of evening radio shows.?
Unsurprisingly, in their new albums both singers are still pouring their hearts out while gazing at Britain’s skylines and streetlights. “Gold in a Brass Age”, Mr Gray’s new album, opens with him lying on his back in autumnal grass. In “Ridiculous Heart”, he murmurs that his soul is “like a sun rising, lifting out of the haze”. The closest thing to a hit on Dido’s new album, “Still on My Mind”, is “Chances”, in which she ponders her wasted day “as the sky turns red [and] the streetlight’s coming on”.?
But if the motifs are familiar, the music is not. “Life for Rent” and “White Ladder” are both exemplars of “folktronica”: a largely acoustic genre using pianos and guitars lightly overlaid by synths and electronic beats. In their new releases, the two artists have largely done away with the folk elements. The most notable exception is Dido’s “Some Kind of Love”, a finger-picked guitar number about listening to old records, and appropriately the tune that sounds most like her early material. Otherwise, most of the tracks on both new albums are mellow electronic numbers. The overall listening experience feels less like the family car and more like a neon-lit cocktail bar.
The lyrical depth will be enough to satisfy die-hard?fans, but the unfamiliar sound could turn off casual ones. The lack of catchy choruses will mean that fewer listeners tune in while driving home or cooking breakfast. Perhaps the two artists have decided, after churning out plenty of hits, that they would like to experiment a little. Britons in search of substitutes will find them easily. A glance at the best-selling British albums of the 2010s reveals plenty of melancholy artists playing acoustic songs, including Adele, Emeli Sandé, Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith. Dido and Mr Gray have left “Life for Rent” and “White Ladder” long behind them, but plaintive guitar and piano ballads will live on.