Review Summary: "Spit to the left, carry on; just smile and say you're good."Build a Problem
is quite the idiosyncratic little experience; what initially comes off as yet another quirky “alt-pop” record blooms into a fascinating journey that’s equal parts intimate and brimming with life. Dodie uses her debut full-length to express incredibly personal and therapeutic topics over soft understated instrumentation, and the results are frankly beautiful. And “frank” really is the best word to use here, as the lack of unnecessary frills or artificial tricks is what gives Build a Problem
so much charm. The music is strikingly stark and minimalistic, mostly consisting of quiet piano and string arrangements to serve as the perfect compliment to Dodie’s soft, pillowy voice. Rarely does she become too ostentatious with her singing, and rarely does the music swell and crescendo into something more climactic, but that only makes both occasions more meaningful when they do happen. “Sorry” is one such moment, as Dodie’s vocals blossom into gorgeous harmonies and falsettos as the strings swell for a brief-yet-powerful climax.
But that also came after several songs (barring “.” which serves as its prelude) that kept everything at a low hum; what Dodie excels at here is knowing how not
to reveal too much of her hand at any given time. Her keen sense of dynamics really heightens the emotional value of Build a Problem
, especially on songs like “Rainbow” and “Cool Girl”. Just listen to how the former combines fingerpicked acoustic guitar with little symphonic flourishes, managing to retain a homely vibe while letting each orchestral swell flesh out the story Dodie’s telling in her lyrics. Or listen to how the latter begins with the same low-key nature as most of the tracklist, before subtly adding more percussion to provide an ever-shifting undertow to the other instruments. The modest “less-is-more” aesthetic is incredibly important to the overall songwriting quality of Build a Problem
, because anything that shifts out of that framework immediately becomes more noticeable and memorable by comparison.
The lyrics themselves are often quite transparent, with Dodie exploring themes of love, relationships, guilt, anger, uncertainty, and several more topics in a very matter-of-fact way. That’s not to say they aren’t poetic - they certainly are - but there’s not much obliqueness to them. “Hate Myself”, for instance, has a title that can be taken pretty literally. The song is all about how the narrator starts assuming she’s the problem with all of her relationships due to how they never work; naturally, feelings of self-doubt and self-resentment pop out of the woodwork. Similar lyrics of self-reflection appear on “Sorry”, which details the ways that one’s negative choices and actions start to add up over time; the title itself, of course, refers to the resulting realization and apology. What really makes Build a Problem
stand out from so many other records of its kind is that both the lyrics and music are just so… sincere. There’s not a shred of irony or sarcasm in the majority of these songs, at least none that I could perceive. Such earnestness is really refreshing, and pretty unexpected for an artist who already had quite the established following on Youtube before even embarking on her first full-length album.
It’s worth mentioning that Dodie has been diagnosed with depersonalization disorder, which essentially leaves her in an out-of-body state in which she feels disassociated with the world she lives in. This might go some way to explaining why her lyrics meld intimacy and detachment so well, as well as how much resentment and depression fuels her writing. But when accompanied by the hopeful orchestral music, you almost get the sense that she’s always trying to find a way out of this mental hell she’s in; if she has to be direct with her messages and her meanings, she will. Build a Problem
is a really special kind of record, one that uses musical subtlety and Dodie’s emotional baggage to tackle topics that many would feel uncomfortable confronting. It’s as if we’re peering into a window to observe an alien who constantly feels imposed upon, and perhaps we can relate to her a little more than we’d like to admit.