Dido’s No Angel at 25: The pleasure and tedium of one of the bestselling albums of all time

Completely inescapable at the turn of the millennium – when her billboards were pelted with tomatoes by Amy Winehouse – the folktronica artist behind hits like ‘Thank You’ and ‘Here with Me’ remains a polarising symbol of muted, post-Cool Britannia chillout. But is there more to Dido’s debut than meets the eye, asks Adam White

Saturday 01 June 2024 06:00
Pretty, calming and aggressively OK: Dido’s 1999 album ‘No Angel’
Pretty, calming and aggressively OK: Dido’s 1999 album ‘No Angel’ (Arista/Cheeky/iStock)

On the promotional trail for her debut album in 2004, a journalist told Amy Winehouse that her record reminded them of an album by Dido. The journalist was never seen again. Not really. But Winehouse’s rapidly curdling expression, in a clip that goes viral every few years, is its own kind of murder spree: raised eyebrows, pursed lips, side glances, fast blinks, exaggerated sighs, seething inhales. Resting “Is this lady actually kidding?” face. Winehouse, of course, was a colossus – thrilling, tortured, contradictory. Dido was a superstar by accident, and a dynamo in the art of sonic vapour. Whose bright idea was it to ever compare them?

That vapour, though, made bank. Released 25 years ago today, Dido’s debut record No Angel remains one of the bestselling albums in British chart history, and the second bestselling album of the Noughties in the UK (James Blunt’s Back to Bedlam takes the top spot). It includes “Thank You”, the track sampled to massive success on the chorus of Eminem’s “Stan”, as well as languid folktronica like “Here with Me”, with its heart-monitor synths and dramatic enough strings to adequately soundtrack Andrew Lincoln as he ran sadly along the Embankment in Love Actually. It’s also neither as bland as conventional wisdom suggests it is, nor quite interesting enough to be a secret classic. But it’s undeniably pretty. Calming and tender. Aggressively OK. You can easily imagine Jamie Oliver making a fish finger buttie to it.

That middle-of-the-road rep has always lingered around Dido. Dubbed “music for people who buy one CD a year” by NME when it was in its bitchy era, she came to epitomise the sound of a Britain coming down from Nineties anarchy; Blairite chillout for people who found Moby a bit noisy. Her choppy haircut, (allegedly) called “the Dido flip”, was so emulated that it has its own Wikipedia page to this day, while the simple shirts and jeans she wore on stage led to a fashion trend that The Observer called “high-street chic” – a description so subtly savage that I’m convinced Trinny and Susannah wrote it. The ubiquity of No Angel likely added to Dido’s uncool – absolutely everyone seemed to have a copy. I distinctly remember its increasingly cracked and scuffed CD case – Dido gazing out of its cover art from inside the letters of her own name – loitering around my mum’s kitchen for what felt like a decade. How embarrassing, I remember thinking. We should really Oxfam that thing.

In recent years, though, I’ve started to question whether we were wrong about Dido. Enviably, she made a ton of money as one of the most successful artists in history, then bounced, raising a family and making music whenever she felt like it. Kendrick Lamar said he was a fan. Eminem adores her. The brilliant, elastically vocalled Caroline Polachek invited her to sing on a track for her record Desire, I Want to Turn to You, aka the very best album of 2023. Maybe there was more to her than met the eye?

Polachek’s comments about her were particularly interesting. During an interview to promote her album, Polachek was taken aback by a journalist who suggested Dido’s presence on the record was a joke, or at least intended to be heard ironically. “How insulting,” she replied. “Artists that invent the sounds of normality can never be seen for what they are in their time. I think it requires the status quo of normality changing before you can see clearly exactly what they contributed and what they invented.”

Dido, born Florian Cloud de Bounevialle Armstrong (!), found early success singing and touring with Faithless, the seminal Nineties electronica outfit that featured her brother, Rollo. She’d linger around recording studios with him while making her own demos, eventually signing a deal in 1996. No Angel was released and promoted in America first (it didn’t actually hit these shores until early 2001). “Here with Me” was chosen as the theme song to the TV series Roswell, about sexy teen aliens in an American high school, while “Thank You” appeared on the soundtrack to the Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors. It was while watching it at home that hip-hop producer The 45 King first discovered it, convinced it could work in sample form, and eventually got it to Eminem.

I know what Dido represents as an archetype. What she represents to people whose childhood and early teenage years, like mine, were so tinged and comforted by the sound of her voice

Caroline Polachek

The pull experienced by The 45 King – enough to make him switch off an unadulterated Gwynnie classic – does make a degree of sense. Dido’s lyrics are plain yet evocative, built around humdrum scenarios and conventional wounds. They hold an odd gravity. “My tea’s gone cold, I’m wondering why / I got out of bed at all,” she sighs on “Thank You”. “All You Want”, the highlight of No Angel, is woozy and dramatic, loaded with imagery of romantic loss. “I’d like to watch you sleep at night / to hear you breathe by my side,” she sings. “Now our bed is oh so cold / My hands feel empty, no one to hold / And I can sleep what side I want.” That voice of hers, its Glade plug-in airiness and hushed, almost prim hesitancy, adds to the effect. No frills. No fuss. No over-complication.

Dido’s is a kind of music that doesn’t necessarily translate into a fervent, passionate following, which might explain why her most recent albums (she released LPs in 2008, 2013 and 2019) haven’t really bothered the charts. But her best-known work does spark feelings and identification – if there is a void there, a slight anonymity, then listeners can fill it in themselves. A quick scan of Reddit threads and YouTube comment sections reveals a litany of people determining Dido the sound of what the world used to be, as if she soundtracked an era before the Towers came down and everything went to hell. The legitimacy of that is, of course, questionable. But it does speak to the strange lure of No Angel, as well as its equally massive follow-up, 2003’s Life for Rent, which produced tracks like “White Flag”. The feeling that its plainness is its superpower, that its gentle ambience is a warm hug.

High-street chic: Dido performs in 2001
High-street chic: Dido performs in 2001 (Shutterstock)

“I know what Dido represents as an archetype,” Polachek continued in that interview last year. “What she represents to people whose childhood and early teenage years, like mine, were so tinged and comforted by the sound of her voice in these important moments in our youth. I know how healing and emotional and grounding her music has been to so many people.”

It’s a lovely legacy to have, if made weirder by the fact that she’s never particularly beaten the boring allegations. A proper reappraisal of her work has yet to take place. Perhaps it’s just too gentle, too nice, too uneager to actually be reappraised. Perhaps it was just too funny watching Winehouse pelt Dido’s promotional billboard with tomatoes while riding around London with Simon Amstell in an episode of the brilliantly anarchic Channel 4 show Popworld. Whatever the case, I’ve decided to throw her on as background noise next time I make dinner. For old times’ sake.

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