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In the five years since Dido released her last album, she’s been patiently waiting for inspiration to strike. It finally has, resulting in her third release, Safe Trip Home. By Mikael Wood

NO LESS THAN HALF A DECADE HAS PASSED since the release of Dido’s last studio album, 2003’s double-platinum Life for Rent, which sold more than two million copies in the United States alone, according to Nielsen SoundScan. “I guess it has been a while if you start calculating the years,” the ethereal English songstress admits with a laugh. “And that’s something everyone but me seems to do.”

As excuses go, Dido’s is pretty solid: “Music is a limitless thing for me,” she says. “It’s about learning as much as possible. When I have something to say, the music will appear; when I don’t, it won’t.” (Now that we hear her reasoning, we wish someone would arrange for the widespread adoption of this policy by other musicians.)

An unhurried muse isn’t Dido’s only explanation for why it took her so long to complete Safe Trip Home (RCA, $19), out this month . She also mentions that there were technical issues to sort out; chief among them was figuring out how to re-create the sound of a synthesizer with an orchestra. Though she made her name by singing delicate soul melodies over chilled-out post-techno grooves -- Eminem famously sampled her song “Thank You” for his 2000 hit “Stan” -- Dido took a turn for the naturalistic on her third album. Instead of being accompanied by drum machines and electronic instruments, her crystal-clear voice is, for the most part, surrounded by live guitar, acoustic piano, and hand-played percussion (much of that performed by Dido herself), as well as lush old-Hollywood strings.

“You get a great warmth from having you and people you know make all the sounds,” Dido says. “And there’s nothing better than hearing an orchestra play a song you wrote.”

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In addition to her older brother, Rollo Armstrong, a veteran cowriter and co-producer of all her CDs, Dido’s principal collaborator on Safe Trip Home was Jon Brion, the Los Angeles–based producer known in recent years for his work with Fiona Apple and Kanye West. A fan of Brion’s whimsical scores for Punch-Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Dido played him some of her ideas at Abbey Road Studios in London; later, she traveled to Los Angeles to continue their partnership. “At some point, microphones were introduced, and suddenly, we were making an album,” she says.

Dido credits Brion with inspiring her to say and do more. “He gave me real confidence in the way I play,” she says. “Sometimes, on certain instruments, I’d get frustrated and wish I could play like so-and-so. But then, Jon would come along and point out what’s great about it.”

Dueling Davids

Season seven of American Idol was defined by the battle of the Davids: Cook, the real-life rocker, and Archuleta, the pint-size popster. Cook ultimately won out, but with each releasing a debut album this month, the two singers are going head-to-head once again. We compare the contenders. -- M.W.

Murray, Utah Blue Springs, Missouri
17 25
Hip Hairstyle
Closely cropped but super spiky Emo comb-over
Vocal Style
Buttery, post–Mariah Carey croon Raspy Eddie Vedder–influenced bellow
First Single
“Crush,” a bubbly midtempo number about the persistence of junior-high romance “The Time of My Life,” a sappy Idol-sanctioned ballad about dreams coming true and other magic moments
Core Audience
Tween girls and their moms Tween girls and their dads
Simon Says
Theeternally cranky -- but usually right -- Simon Cowell told Larry Kingin an interview that “the kids love” Archuleta. He also (incorrectly)predicted that Archuleta would win season seven. Inan interview with Entertainment Weekly, Cowell said Cook’s rendition of“Billie Jean” was “in a different league” than the other performers’songs. He told King, “This is the guy I would actually choose to listento.”
Chance for Success
Thebubblegum-pop-playing, promise-ring-wearing Jonas Brothers have proventhat squeaky clean can be cool. If Archuleta (or his overbearing dad)can resist bogging down his album with too many slo-mo ballads, theiTunes-enabled Disney demographic is his to dominate. His Idol rock predecessor, Chris Daughtry, racked upmultiplatinum sales with an album of middle-of-the-road rock. Cook is alittle artier, which means he could rope in an even wider audience.Reported collaborations with rock royalty such as Chris Cornell alsolend street cred.