Last month, Dua Lipa posted a picture of herself to Instagram with the caption ‘miss me?’ It suggested a fresh start, a bat signal for pop fans that a new era was underway, anchored by the fact that the former FACE cover star had wiped her travelogue-esque social media platforms clean and dyed her hair red.
But can you miss someone when it feels like they never went away? Can Dua’s new single Houdini – co-created with psych-rocker Kevin Parker, aka Tame Impala, and self-proclaimed Baroque Rave Lord Danny L Harle – really feel like the intro to a new era, since it arrives a few months after a number one smash (the Barbie soundtrack’s Dance the Night) that felt inextricably fused to the previous one? And, most crucially, can that previous era ever be topped?
Dua Lipa’s second album, Future Nostalgia, released during the dark, early days of lockdown in March 2020, cemented the 28-year-old British-Albanian’s position as a proper global superstar. If her 2017 single New Rules had been her long-awaited breakthrough, then the slick disco banger Don’t Start Now, released in 2019 as Future Nostalgia’s kiss-off of a lead single, was the springboard to a different stratosphere.
A playful fusion of full-bodied pop-funk and featherlight disco with a modern lyrical bite, Future Nostalgia managed to capture the dichotomy of its title perfectly, updating a sound that Dua’s peers were playing straight. The album’s rollout was as smooth as the Lycra jumpsuits she favoured throughout; there were five more singles from the original album, including Levitating – which spent over 70 weeks in the US Billboard Hot 100 – and a string of high-concept, flashy music videos that screamed major label priority. It harked back to peak ‘80s superstar era, where blockbuster albums were milked for singles until every other person seemed to own them.
Five months after the original album landed, Dua Lipa dragged us to the (still frustratingly virtual) dancefloor via The Blessed Madonna-helmed remix project, Club Future Nostalgia, featuring renowned club music acts such as Moodymann as well as – why not? – Madonna, Missy Elliott and Blackpink. Then in February 2021, Dua dropped the expanded edition of Future Nostalgia, subtitled The Moonlight Edition, featuring eight additional tracks. Phew.
And then, almost exactly a year later, Dua finally started the Future Nostalgia tour, which spanned 91 shows and only finished in November 2022. Since then, she’s appeared on the cover of Vogue France, sustained her editorial platform Service95 and a BBC podcast, given a talk at the Hay Literary Festival, launched her own fashion line with Versace, shot a film with Matthew Vaughn, collaborated with the likes of Elton John, Kylie Minogue and Megan Thee Stallion, scored a Number One single with Barbie anthem Dance The Night and single-handedly tried to bring back smoking. Miss her? She basically lives in our collective consciousness, rent free.
Dance The Night, which also gave Dua her fifth US Top 10, didn’t help deter a sense that the Future Nostalgia era is seemingly never-ending. All supple disco strings, diamanté handclaps and chunky funk bass, it sounds like it sashayed out of the Future Nostalgia album sessions in neon pink leg warmers. So shaking that sound off is going to be a big ask.
There are glints of a disco ball piercing through Houdini, but it’s less Studio 54 sparkle and more makeshift lighting rig in a grubby warehouse. The sound is filthier and more urgent, with Parker’s bass riff and the song’s percussive thrust recalling early Michael Jackson.
On Houdini – which has been confirmed as the first single from a new album – Lipa’s malleable voice errs on the side of nonchalant, like she knows the guy she’s toying with (“If you’re good enough you’ll find a way,” she shrugs) is ultimately going to fail to impress. Just when the song’s admittedly less immediate hooks start to worm their way into your brain, the song is splintered by Danny L Harle unleashing his array of laser-beam synths, a ludicrous key change and an effects-laden bass riff as Dua vanishes.
It feels less like a complete sonic overhaul and more like a nod to that career-changing era while also pushing elements of her sound in new directions. “Catch me before I go, Houdini” she sings at the song’s close. But chances are she’ll be everywhere all over again.