Dreamy, harsh, mystical, and deeply personal; Build a Problem is the debut album of indie singer/songwriter and YouTuber Dodie Clark (stylized “dodie”). This is her first studio album, having released four EPs since 2016 and many singles/unreleased original songs since she created her YouTube channel (“doddleoddle”) in 2011.
As a fan of hers for almost ten years, it’s a wonderful feeling to see such a hard-working, self-made artist getting her flowers.
Build a Problem is, more than any of her EPs, a cohesive album. It is a work of personal and musical contradictions and accepting the wholeness of self — a recurring theme in Clark’s internet and songwriting life. Some of her most famous songs, such as “Sick of Losing Soulmates,” “She,” and “Human,” dealt with struggles she spoke about openly, such as internalized biphobia, clinical depression, and trauma.
Much of her fan base and internet following is built upon this personal connection with Clark, due both to her start on YouTube while it was still a relatively new platform (or at least during the years when it grew most rapidly), and with that, for her willingness to explain the personal nature of each song she released — often releasing “how to play” videos on her side channel (“doddlevloggle”) in order to include her audience in the music–making process. The release of Build a Problem was foreshadowed by videos of Clark knitting each letter of the title on her side channel along with casual conversations to friends and fans.
Though delayed two months past the original release date, the album’s drop was a welcome bit of joy in a difficult time for us all.
Air So Sweet
The opening track, “Air So Sweet,” is a short introduction to the feeling of the album: hope and joy before exploring the depths of sadness and healing. The 1 minute, 4 second piece shows off her simple lyricism and harmony before delving into more serious subjects. As a creative design aspect, it’s the “first impression” or “appearance” of the album, or perhaps of dodie herself, as we, the audience, get to know her.
“Hate Myself,” the second song, is a masterpiece. The album’s title comes from this song in the line: “filling in the gaps / build a problem that / neither of us needs / something wrong with me.” The whole piece has an invigorating, forward-moving percussion that captures the frantic, propelling, inner-brain-spiral feeling of the lyrics.
After the light breeze of “Air So Sweet,” “Hate Myself” prepares us for our album of contradictions. “Oh, so illogical, I’m not magical, I can’t read your mind / but how can you not hear the whole conversion / I have, sitting still with a brain on fire?” dodie’s magic lies in her specificity, and this song is no exception. The bridge explodes with contradictions of self-understanding and unsure footing, as she propels herself through this moment — does this person really get me? Is it all in my head?
The vocal performance on “Hate Myself” is also extremely emotional and breaks us right into her beautiful, stronger, healthier voice. dodie’s vocal style, while having improved greatly over the years, tends to be very soft and slightly on the side of too-mumble-y. This album has pulled her into the pocket. “Hate Myself” shines vocally and allows her brilliant lyrics to come through; her light, genuine emotion isn’t lost even as her vocal skills have improved. The breathiness isn’t lost in the quieter moments, but it isn’t the dominating factor anymore.
I Kissed Someone (It Wasn’t You)
“I Kissed Someone (It Wasn’t You)” was a bombshell when the music video dropped a few weeks ago. It’s a bit sexy for dodie (no complaints here!), showing a trail of people coming in and out of her room as she tries to get over “You.” The minor mode switch of the song aurally displays the delicateness of grief. She perfectly captures the feeling of going home with someone you don’t want to just because you think you SHOULD, in this case, coupled with the expectation of getting over somebody you loved. “All worked up for something dead / I think it’s time to go to bed.”
The truth comes out in a whispered refrain, barely there under her coherent thoughts in the chorus: “how could it be anyone but you? / I know now, I know now, I know.” It’s all in the happiness within sadness, or sad parts of happy times. Complicated feelings in delicate songs that sound simple at first but have many layers of instrumental, or heartbreaking lyrics.
On a personal note, Clark has talked about invalidating her own sexuality many times online, and by expressing love between women in the music video for “I Kissed Someone (It Wasn’t You)” as a mundane, regular part of the heartbreak process, she has done a lovely thing for lonely music-video-loving bisexuals everywhere. Thanks, Dodie. Gonna go cry now.
There’s a lovely visual metaphor for this unfeelingness and buried emotion in the music video, which I highly recommend watching if you haven’t already.
The lyric videos
This brings me to the album’s accompanying lyric videos, which are a necessary component of dodie’s full artistic vision. Directed by fellow YouTuber Jack Howard, the twelve videos (one for each main song) feature dodie driving around in, and getting in and out of cars as simple metaphor: traveling as “transitioning through life,” if you will. The music and visuals bleed over in the little instrumental moments between songs. There are so many stories and intricate details to notice in the way Clark and Howard chose to characterize dodie’s “character” throughout each piece; each is an individual little work of art.
Cool Girl, Special Girl, Rainbow
Much has already been written about lead single “Cool Girl” since it was released, so I’ll keep it short. It’s certainly one of Clark’s best songs to date, accompanied by a beautiful music video about individuality and repression of self for the benefit of others that many women can relate to.
“Special Girl” is about the contradictions that encapsulate Build a Problem. Loving and understanding yourself; hating and confusing your reality. A happy song with a little “f*ck the world” thrown in: “sweet sweet irony / could not care less if you love me / but hate me first, yeah, make me work, that’s perfect.”
The following track, “Rainbow,” is a perfect response to “Special Girl.” Where the latter embraces the contradictions that make up dodie’s experience of the world, the former has more trouble: “But to say that I’m a rainbow / to tell me that I’m bright / when I’m so used to feeling wrong / well, it makes me feel alright.” It’s her ode to her bisexuality; difficult to accept in a black-and-white world, but sometimes she is able to bask in the love of others.
Four Tequilas Down and the interludes
“Four Tequilas Down” is probably my favorite song on the album (in a tight race with “Hate Myself”). It’s another one of those sneaky, upbeat-sounding ones with a sad heart behind it. That musical skill matches the meaning of the song; an intimate moment that feels right, as wrong as it might be: “Four tequilas down / who gives a sh*t if we’re messing around? / They’ll never know, they’ll never know. / So just hold me like you mean it / we’ll pretend because we need it.”
There are two little gems of instrumentals that surround “Four Tequilas Down” that demonstrate her range, titled “?” and “.”. The album format, and particularly Howard’s incredible direction of the lyric videos, finally allow us to see Clark’s full artistic eye and the mood she wanted to construct. The album is a story. It’s pure dodie. The good, the bad, the everything.
Sorry, When, Before the Line
The final three songs make some of the best use of the lyric video format as part of Clark’s storytelling. “Sorry” captures grief from the back to the front, in waves that drown you. The horror of having hurt somebody else and being unable to take it back works brilliantly with the backwards visuals of the video — she literally cannot take back the moments in her past.
“When” is a song about the album: learning to live while waiting for life to begin: “Sure, I’ll live in the moment / But I’m never happy here. / I’m surrounded by greener looking time. / Am I the only one / wishing life away?” In the video, Clark sings as home videos play through the car window next to her in fuzzy splashes of rainbow color. She can’t forget the past, but she can find a little comfort in it.
The final new song, “Before the Line,” is the mirror image of “Air So Sweet.” We end bitter and frustrated; she’s ready to fight for the life she wants, but doesn’t know if she ever will. It’s an astonishingly angry piece for the singer and offers a refreshing new sound. Clark sings about the pain she knows she has caused herself, lacking the empathy and hopefulness of “Air So Sweet,” the way “Air So Sweet” was naive in its disregard for her struggles: “And I am lying when I say / It’s time to let her float away / No, I’m still clawing for the strings.” It’s a moment of masterful storytelling that wonderfully captures the album’s theme of contradiction. The phrase “build a problem” is, itself, a funny, contradictory thing.
Build a Problem
There are two bonus tracks on the first disc, “Guiltless” and “Boys Like You,” both released as singles over a year ago. I love them, and the entire second disc of demos pulled from original songs dodie released on her second YouTube channel during quarantine, but alas this is already quite a bit of an essay.
I recently had a conversation with a close friend about what it feels like to struggle with mental illness and genuinely believing you are crazier than everyone around you. dodie’s own struggles with depression and her willingness to share it with people in a compassionate way color this album. It’s an album about that “I must be crazy” feeling in many ways; it’s an album about learning to love yourself (and others) through that feeling. She captures mood through music in a way few artists can. There is joy in the sadness and sadness in the joy. I myself am often scared of “sad” music with the fear that it will drag me down with it, or make me think about the parts of myself I don’t like so much. dodie makes it easier.