Tuesday, November 28th, 2023

Dua Lipa – Houdini

We’ll stop making the subheads about ourselves when we stop getting handed setups this easy…


[Video]
[6.44]

Alex Ostroff: This is perfectly fine for a Dua Lipa single. If it was the first one I’d heard since “New Rules” convinced me she could be a proper pop star, I might even be excited about it. But in the middle of the pandemic, despite remaining a quasi-anonymous presence in terms of persona, she gave us “Don’t Start Now,” “Physical,” “Break My Heart,” and “Levitating.” The narrative hasn’t solidified around whether Future Nostalgia was a fluke album full of great songs, or whether it was Dua levelling up and entrenching herself as a global pop star. “Houdini” tries to ignore the weight of expectations and avoid the question. It’s a pleasant post-disco tune that’s a little too scuzzy to fit in with the previous album, but lacks a chorus to match the ones that came before. The most interesting musical ideas are both saved for the end: (1) the descending synth line that shows up around 2:14, and (2) that funky filtered guitar (??) line that pops up for the outro at 2:45. If either (or both!) appeared earlier in the track, this might merit an [8] — even without a strong chorus — but they’re bafflingly treated as afterthoughts.
[6]

Jonathan Bradley: Firmly on the other side of the pop-disco rupture that was Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa presses forward with a harder, more streamlined, more singularly focused version of the same. The bass rumbles more, the synths stay squelchy, the delivery is more arched, and the hook is, perhaps, a little too willing to stay within its comfort zone. “Catch me before I go Houdini,” she sings; it’s a warning of evanescence, and distinctly not the boast of a daring stunt act.
[5]

Leah Isobel: Dua Lipa is the pop singer in abstract. Her previous record’s embrace of Memphis Group postmodernism parallels her music’s sock-puppet habitation of the forms of dance-pop without any grounding substance or, like, movement. To her credit, she’s a good ventriloquist. “Houdini” has a great little rollercoaster structure, rattling and clattering up to that big stomach-drop synth riff in the final minute; and while I’m not convinced that anyone involved actually knows who Houdini is, her perfectly irritating, nasal pronunciation of the name makes for an incredibly sticky bit of popcraft. (One wonders how many takes were required to land on “Who-deigh-gnee.”) But that’s just it. “Houdini” has been popcrafted and sanded to within an inch of its life, so that even its flashes of character feel workshopped. Its emptiness feels purposeful, as if she took “Go girl, give us nothing” as an imperative.
[5]

David Moore: I think whether you like this song depends on whether you buy that Dua Lipa is an A-list pop star. To me she’s always seemed to punch above her weight in the pop marketplace, and the dumber the song is the better I tend to like it. (Her Barbie song sounded terrible until I saw the movie — it’s like a LEGO Movie song without jokes.) Back in the “New Rules” days I didn’t see a ton of daylight between her and rock bottom (Bebe Rexha), so I found the s’fisticated disco turn unconvincing. This, by comparison, is minimally constructed and maximally efficient, like…I dunno, a solid dust buster. It’s small and doesn’t seem like anything special, but it really sucks!
[7]

Aaron Bergstrom: Maybe the critics have it backward: Dua Lipa’s fundamental blank-slate-ness is a feature, not a bug. There’s a freedom that comes with having absolutely nothing invested in her as an artist. I don’t want to make Dua Lipa friendship bracelets. I don’t want a Dua Lipa: Homecoming concert documentary. I don’t want to know what the Dua Lipa stan army calls themselves. Sometimes I just want a no-strings-attached pop song that seems completely uninterested in cultural relevance. Don’t overthink it. Kevin Parker is here because we’ve been doing disco for three years now and it’s time for something else. The central Houdini concept makes absolutely no sense. Who cares! Let’s dance!
[9]

Joshua Lu: Dua Lipa delivers another quality dance track, but one that could feasibly have been a lead-in to the nth rerelease of Future Nostalgia than an entirely new era. “Houdini” doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself from the many other ’80s-inspired hits that Dua has already inundated pop radio with — hits that also had proper final choruses.
[6]

Jackie Powell: Is it unfair to compare “Houdini” to “Don’t Start Now”? It might be because “Don’t Start Now” was Dua Lipa’s“Popped” moment: that old show that used to be on Fuse, which chronicled the song that helped an artist achieve household status. “Houdini” is the beginning of Lipa’s new era, one she’s made clear is far from the disco of Future Nostalgia and Barbie‘s “Dance the Night,” and on first listen, I wasn’t sold on how the song makes that statement. But “Houdini” is a grower, in particular via its hook. The verses aren’t impressive, but Lipa tells her story in the eight-phrase chorus, which she sings four times in a song that clocks in at just over three minutes long. Kevin Parker and Danny L Harle overlap ’70s rock synths in each verse alongside modern EDM synths that are very ARTPOP-era Zedd and work on a track that’s trying to sound psychedelic. Lyrically this isn’t Lipa’s best, but her intonation is one of her under-appreciated strengths — most obvious in the post-chorus when she accents the phrase “her ways” in the line “maybe you could cause a girl to change her ways.”
[6]

Will Adams: The knee-jerk Future Nostalgia comparisons upon “Houdini”‘s release confused me. (If anything, “Dance the Night” was the clear FN cast-off.) It’s disco, yes, but it also has grit, fuzz and a self-seriousness that’s carried by the insistent bass ostinato, as if you looped the brooding opening bars of Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and discarded its pleading chorus. Dua Lipa matches the production despite her silly (but endearing) pronunciation of “HOO-dee-nee.” And just when “Houdini” starts to feel repetitive, Kevin Parker switches on the rotating multi-colored disco ball, and the fun really starts.
[7]

Rose Stuart: The most magical thing about “Houdini” is how effortless it is. Though Dua Lipa has never had a particularly sexy vocal style, here she doesn’t need it, all the heat conveyed through that dirty bass line and fuzz guitar solo.
[8]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: No I mean this is perfectly good flashdance that verges on greatness, but I just feel like everyone involved (Kevin Parker excepted) could be trying a little harder. One point docked because Dua says “Houdini” like she’s still workshopping how to say it right.
[7]

Lauren Gilbert: Proof that nonsensical lyrics don’t really matter in pop music, as long as you have a hook this good.
[10]

Ian Mathers: Ruthlessly efficient, with so little time or space wasted that we don’t have the opportunity to think through whether the title metaphor makes sense (imagine if this was called “D.B. Cooper”). But the skronkier version of the backing near the end is even more effective. One wonders if foregrounding that element sooner might have come close to advancing the current state of the art rather than just reflecting it.
[8]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Injecting a little grit, stakes, and vim into Dua’s music after the airtight polish of Future Nostalgia would work, if only “Houdini” had a hook strong enough to keep the package together. This is all work; where is the fun?
[5]

Andrew Karpan: Dua Lipa is tired. Not tired as in washed up or unwelcome, but literally, physically tired, the kind of thing you can hear on the edge of her breath, the pocketed sigh that occurs between her chant of “I come and I go” and “tell me all the ways you need me.” The parallels with the song’s titular Hungarian-American magician speak for themselves; he could slip out of everything but was beaten to death on a dare, a kind of desperation that is both mawkish and, from a peculiar distance, moving. But in the present, the grabs at post-tropical dance by way of that faintly familiar Kevin Parker riff are annoying.
[5]

Harlan Talib Ockey: Running through the chorus at the beginning sucks a lot of the momentum out of the later choruses, especially since the main instrumental explosion is saved for the end. That ending is really fun — it uses several of the same synth freakout tricks as Kevin Parker’s other child “Let It Happen” — but gallops offscreen just slightly too soon. I would happily listen to a six minute remix, but a few extra bars are all that’s needed. As for Dua, she’s become the Reliably Good Pop Star that will show up on time, put in an effortlessly confident performance, and then disappear back to some vacation resort. The lyrics are fine, with room for improvement — the title drop has “grocery bag” energy.
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: Somehow both coasts and tries way too hard, and it feels like the writers think Houdini was a cat. And Kevin Parker doesn’t remember that he’s the producer and can continue to do stuff until the last 30 seconds. Yet weirdly that works?
[8]

Alex Clifton: Thumping, glossy pop that’s sticky despite claiming a vanishing act — precisely what Dua Lipa does best. No notes.
[9]

Kayla Beardslee: Oh, she comes and goes like a glitch for sure. “Houdini” isn’t a revelation like “Don’t Start Now,” but still a good time. I kind of wonder if it would have been even more interesting if Dua had given up on traditional verse-chorus structure entirely and just started throwing in left-turn bits like the bridge and outro everywhere.
[7]

Brad Shoup: The garbled bassline is good, like a machine-learning “enhancement” of the “You’re So Vain” intro. This being a Kevin Parker co-production, there’s not much to hold on to, but the textures are exquisite. This being Dua Lipa, there’s urgency but no playfulness. Which doesn’t seem possible: she’s shoehorning Houdini references into a disco version of Styx’s “Blue Collar Man”.
[4]

Taylor Alatorre: More restrained and understated than one might expect a Tame Impala/PC Music production to be, with its “experimental” mandate largely confined to flourishes and trimmings and subtle studio trickery, all in the service of another high-drama Dua Lipa floor-filler that sounds “different, but not too different.” The blast of Kevin Parker guitar fuzz that shows up out of nowhere in the last 20 seconds hints at genre-busting ideas that were left on the cutting room floor in order to make “Houdini” a more sleek, efficient vehicle for pop dominance. It leaves me wanting more, but from a business perspective I get it — save the actual psychedelia for the deep cuts.
[8]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: I still remember when A$AP Rocky was meant to seem revelatory for thinking T. Rex was the shit back in 2015, and now Dua Lipa is talking about “changing pop culture” by collaborating with, uh, Kevin Parker. It’s deeply dumb to think that rock and psychedelia have uniquely valuable cultural cachet in 2023 (Lil Yachty fans please shut the fuck up), and “Houdini” just sounds like the ’80s backwash she spit up on her last album. So what’s the point? As ever, Lipa can’t rise above the barest semblance of personality, using moments of flashy reverb to mask her passionless singing. The guitar solo adds some bite, but Parker’s whole shtick is having a single memorable riff replace good songwriting. “Houdini” is assembly-line pop: everything’s in its right place, and it sucks.
[2]

Dorian Sinclair: There’s this great sound in “Houdini” — a deep, croaky synth burp that recurs under the verse. It stands out because of how odd it is relative to the steely clarity of most of the other production choices; amid all the polish, that odd little groan brings some welcome tension to the overall sound. Sadly, it’s not here for long.
[6]

Alfred Soto: There’s a lot of bass line to measure up to.
[5]

Nortey Dowuona: The drums on this were rolled off a random 1980s pop disco song that never broke, so it got looped and chopped for Dua to continue tickling the nostalgia antennae of the middle-aged yuppies we are, making it clear that at this point in her career, she will appear on her terms. But those terms have already been accepted, praised, and rehashed, replacing the ones that had her making solid R&B with Miguel and doing soundtrack songs for Alita: Battle Angel. May the next Dua Lipa album give us something other than forgotten ’80s disco pop.
[6]

Oliver Maier: Let’s talk about that very first second. What is that? Is that Dua Lipa in the recording booth with the track echoing from her headphones, muttering a confirmation that she’s ready to record? Or — as I think the acoustics more readily suggest — is it Dua Lipa waiting offstage, track booming across an arena, psyching herself up for her new era? This moment, I think, invites you to view this song in context, as the first lead single since one of this century’s biggest pop albums, from a star who has made a personality of professionalism. Dua feels like an anomaly now as we survey a pop landscape smattered with songs about self-doubt and Mental Health™; suddenly, there she is on the hillside, a shimmering Amazon woman who doesn’t do vulnerability or care to try. She performs emotions — elation, desperation, trepidation — like an athlete, not an actor. When she got made fun of for sucking at dancing, she learned with ruthless efficiency how to do so, and now she’s one of maybe four or five popstars who bothers. The three minutes and five seconds of “Houdini” after that “okay” are all business, unlikely to disappoint hardcore Duacolytes and maybe just the right amount of Kevin Parker to win over some Duagnostics. But that “okay” suggests something like the weight of expectations, something hesitant and human. And yes, it’s artificial; it’s not a document of a real moment. But with some popstars, and especially with Dua Lipa, the text is all you have to work with. This is a moment she or someone on her team chose to insert. For whatever reason, Dua Lipa had to cast a shadow for a second.
[6]

Reader average: [6.52] (17 votes)

Vote: 0   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10

8 Responses to “Dua Lipa – Houdini”

  1. Shocked I’m the only [10]!

  2. Love Oliver’s insight!!! very sharp.

  3. I guess ultimately I didn’t think this song was amazing as I didn’t think it tied in that well with Houdini – it’s all I’m gonna disappear and that’s it – unusual for me to pick up on lyrics, but I was expecting some kind of Iron Maiden-ish run through like Alexander the Great. I didn’t learn anything about Houdini – so just a 6

  4. Well, this is apparently the most I’ve ever liked something Tame Impala-related!

  5. “I didn’t learn anything about Houdini – so just a 6”

    Jel if TSJ ever comes back for real you gotta write here

  6. Two uses of the phrase “ruthlessly efficient” plus one “maximally efficient” and one plain “efficient.” Also like “barest semblance of personality” and “personality of professionalism.” I missed Ctrl-F’ing the Jukebox. Er…..

  7. Aarons blurb has me cackling

  8. Actually Dave it’s one “ruthlessly efficient” and one “ruthless efficiency” (which I love)

Leave a Reply