Last week, I wrote about BT, a musician whose career can’t really be summed up in a word, getting by through a combination of creativity and intellect and a willingness to follow his most ambitious impulses. Thomas Dolby strikes me as being mostly of the same breed; by all means the man ought to be known as a one-hit wonder, the sort of relic that should be playing small-town festivals and appearing on VH1’s I Love the 80’s every now and then, and yet he’s had the sort of career that most artists can only dream of. For that I think we can credit his sense of self-awareness and his desire to control his own narrative; in his early days MTV and EMI seemed to force this sort of “mad scientist” image upon him, something which Dolby himself seemed to have a lot of fun with, but in the end it just wasn’t him.
Of course, those who know Dolby’s music know that “She Blinded Me With Science” isn’t really representative of his work – Dolby himself admits he wrote a song on a lark and didn’t even consider it good enough for inclusion on The Golden Age of Wireless. But sometimes you just gotta play with the cards you’re dealt. “Science” of course became a big hit, turning Dolby into a technopop figurehead. Despite that, Dolby’s sophomore album was more influenced by jazz and R&B than Kraftwerk, and outside of “Hyperactive!” (Dolby’s “other” hit, originally written for Michael Jackson), there was little there that was fit for radio play. From there his releases were few and far between, and after 1992 he pretty much left the biz altogether. Granted, he still did some soundtrack work here and there but outside of a few private shows the man didn’t even perform live again until 2006.
Unfortunately, to all but his close fans, the return of Thomas Dolby was pretty much a non-event. Given that he hadn’t released anything in about two decades there wasn’t a whole lot of pressure on the guy, allowing him to take his sweet time with just about every aspect of this one. Obviously a lot has changed in the interim; while many veterans have bemoaned the downfall of the traditional record model, Dolby seemed to be rejuvenated by it. A Map of the Floating City was preceded with the release of a trading-based MMO game which I believe gave out Thomas Dolby MP3 files as ‘rewards’, including some of his new songs. Regardless of whether or not that appeals to you, you got to admit that it’s a pretty novel idea. As for the album itself, it’s roughly divided into three EPs, entitled Urbanoia, Amerikana, and Oceanea, representing the three continents these stories take place on.
If there’s one thing you can say for A Map of the Floating City it’s that Dolby is definitely playing to his strengths. Anyone whose listened to one of his prior albums knows that this is the sort of person who pores over lyrics and obsesses over different sounds, tailoring almost everything he does to hold up in the long run. I’ve always admired those who are able to tell a good story through song; you have to fit things within a certain meter and rhyme scheme, and when you get down to it there are only so many words you can use, so you’ve got to be economical. It’s kind of a rare skill to do this well (Gordon Lightfoot is the gold standard of this if you ask me) but I do think that Dolby’s got the knack. Take the opening lines of “Road to Reno”: “He was a crooked politician/she sold brassieres at Sears/He said he liked the Beatles/And she liked Tears for Fears” – four short lines that say so much about these characters and their relationship. In Dolby’s world, it’s those little details that make all the difference.
You could say that about the album’s sound design and production as well. A Map of the Floating City may not be the best album of 2011 (though I’d argue it’s certainly in the conversation), but to my ears it’s the best sounding album of the year. I’d say it’s got a refreshingly modern sound to it, but it’s almost more than modern, it’s like a clinic in how to create punch and complexity and dynamics without overloading the speakers. To Dolby’s fans, the mix of styles should be no surprise; you’ve got bluegrass in here, some bossa nova, a touch of blues, a little bit of techno, and so on. More than that I think the album defies what such an artist is supposed to sound like – someone whose heyday was nearly three decades past, someone who by all means ought to be rusty and unconditioned. But everything sounds great, particularly Dolby himself, whose vocals are better than they’ve ever been.
Anyway, let’s talk about the songs here. As mentioned, it’s divided into three sections. Urbanoia is dark and unsettling and features the only real “electronic” instrumentation on here, Amerikana features songs that are bluesier and janglier (as you’d expect from its namesake), and Oceanea is more ethereal and reflective. Contrary to what you might think, Urbanoia is the weak spot, relatively speaking. This is the rare album where the weakest track is right up front – “Nothing New Under the Sun” is a funny piece about a man lucking into a smash hit, but musically it’s a bland slice of AOR pop that makes you wonder if Dolby’s lost it. No worries though, as the other ten songs aren’t like that, as if the whole tune was just Dolby having a laugh. Next up is “Spice Train”, a Bollywood-styled slice of driving technopop that functions as the album’s only real potential single. But the rest of the album isn’t like that, either.
19 years out of the music business will do that; though I don’t think Dolby had a cache of songs stored up should he ever return, he certainly must’ve been gathering up everything that’s influenced him in the meantime. One moment he’s doing a boingy take on bluegrass (“Toadlickers”) and the next he’s crooning out a painfully sincere ballad (“Love is a Loaded Pistol”). The album’s centerpiece is “17 Hills”, sort of an epic in a way, spanning nearly eight minutes with plenty of unexpected twists in the arrangement. It’s a beautiful and melancholy tune with pedal steel, fretless bass, and some great playing from Mark Knopfler, much in line with the more expansive and cinematic tunes in his catalogue like “Screen Kiss” and “Budapest by Blimp”. Again it’s pretty much all in the details with this one; not just the cool things going on musically with the strings and the manipulated fiddle solo and the bits of honky-tonk, but also in the lyrics, which are certainly worth reading. It details a story of a criminal who hooks up with the wrong woman (“Flaming hair and her name was Irene/The prettiest thief you’ve ever seen”) and bungles a robbery; he goes to prison and she winds up getting shot.
Such are the sort of stories Dolby loves to tell; most of the characters he writes are hapless or deluded in some way, always in search of something impossible or unobtainable. They tend to be unseemly, or at least are the type to harbor some sort of secret past. I wouldn’t say his songs tend to be downers but there aren’t a lot of happy endings here. The only time it really feels oppressive is during the closer “To the Lifeboats”, about England getting completely flooded out.
Anyway, this was a great album to discover again. My only knock against it is that it’s the sort of disc that you have to remind yourself to listen to, as the music works best when you’re able to devote your full attention to it, something I certainly don’t do enough of these days. The upshot is that these sort of albums are a nice surprise when you do come back to them; I remember it being good but not this good. But there’s only one moment of catharsis, during the climax of “To the Lifeboats”, where Dolby gets to let loose and shred a little. These are the things that keep you coming back, but alas, it’s only thirty seconds. It’s a powerful moment and something that makes me wonder If Dolby’s intended it to be his last; all the time spent and care taken towards perfecting every last detail of this sort of implies that Dolby was not looking much past this one. If so, it’s a great cap on the man’s music career, and if you ask me, his best since 1982’s Golden Age of Wireless. Not bad for a one-hit wonder.