Thomas Dolby – A Map of the Floating City (2011) – an album review

What do you do after making four hit studio albums, a couple of off-beat soundtracks and a theme song or two, and help develop whole new ways of hearing and interacting with music on the internet? Well, if it’s the 20th anniversary of the last studio album you released, you might consider making a new pop album, just to keep your hand in and remind folks that it was you who wrote those hits back in the 80s. And that’s what he did, folks! At long last, we have new Thomas Dolby, and it’s exactly what we were waiting for. Rejoice!

tl;dr Version: Did you miss Thomas Dolby as much as I did? If so, you can stay. The rest of you can GTFO! 😀

‘Splain, Lucy Version: Another day, another comeback album. You’d think I was making a career choice or something; All Comeback Albums, All The Time! But that’s putting the shoe on the wrong foot. Thomas Dolby finding a reason to make a new album is great news for any music lover with a taste for the 80s and early 90s, and this album deserves more attention than it seems to be getting, as near as I can tell.

Boring Version: What? Is he saying Thomas Morgan Dolby Robertson’s new album is boring? HERESY!

There are a small number of acts from the legendary 80s that so totally epitomize the period musically; Thomas Dolby is one of them. However, after the 80s rolled on, Dolby made three more studio albums (Aliens Ate My Buick, Astronauts & Heretics, and The Gate To The Mind’s Eye OST), which were at least as good if not better than his debut and sophomore albums (The Golden Age of Wireless, The Flat Earth). However, they didn’t have the benefit of featuring one of his two biggest radio/video hits (She Blinded Me With Science and Hyperactive), and thus are not as fondly remembered by 80s Nostalgia buffs.

It should come as little surprise to hear that Dolby moved on to other projects, still related to the making of music, but with far less call for composition and live performance. Even now, with this, his first studio album in almost twenty years, the project is more about the technology used to deliver it than a pursuit of the pop market that once turned its back on him.

This project was brought to us by the auspices of a peculiar, temporary MMO that was developed for the project, based on the concept that a post-apocalyptic world would require everyone to sale little boats and such around in a flooded world, salvaging, bartering and doing whatever else is necessary to learn how to survive in this world of water and docklands. There was quite a bit more to it, but sadly, I absolutely sucked at the game, and gave up on it rather early, before ever getting to the point in the game where the plot opened up and the music started being delivered. As such, I had to find other means of hearing the music.

Now, through the magic of the internet, you can download the tracks OR buy the CD from, which is mighty convenient for me, given that the likelihood of my finding this disc in my local record store is remote. I might have more luck finding an old copy of Gate To The Mind’s Eye on DVD, there, however.

Any road, Thomas Dolby, twenty years later, sound suspiciously like what Thomas Dolby would sound like if he had kept right on recording after Gate. It’s danceable, it’s electronic, it’s pop, it tells stories, and it’s entirely its own creature, which is really all that any Dolby fan could ask for.

Nothing New Under The Sun opens with Dolby singing us the title acapella, before the song proper begins, which might not seem so remarkable, until you try to recall how many tunes in the last couple of decades actually do this. It’s rather striking in any case, and it’s a fun little tune in a pseudo-Motown vibe, where he basically sends up the whole idea of writing and recording a new album. Clearly he isn’t taking the job TOO seriously. There’s some really nice bass playing in here, but the nicest thing about the song is that it’s exactly as infectious as we remember Dolby songs being, without resorting to turning in the requisite three minute ditty for radio play (the song clocks in at 4:31). It doesn’t stick out as the most obvious successor to his most famous songs, but then, if you know Dolby’s catalogue well enough, you’ll know how much those songs were aberrations. What you get here is a perfectly serviceable reintroduction to Thomas Dolby as represented by the rest of his catalogue.

And if that sounds mamby pamby, keep in mind that I like this track.

Spice Train is a fun little bit of electronic dance music with a synth horn section that reminds me of Land of a Thousand Dances, Dancing In The Street and Soulfinger, while still sounding quite modern. So, Electronica meets R&B with a strong Hindu twist, and a vocal arrangement that puts me in mind of mid-80s Prince. Very funky, but then, I’ve said several times over the years that Thomas Dolby is the funkiest Englishman on the planet. This tune just serves to reprove my point. The Bollywood Orchestral strings are a nice touch, and there’s some nice funk guitar hidden underneath all of the layers of exotica.

Evil Twin Brother is more of a return to the classic Thomas Dolby style, and it opens talking about being in NYC, which is a great way to win me over, even though I don’t live there. When the electronic dance groove creeps in during the chorus, you wonder if the song has been hijacked, but is slips back to the verse riff, snatches of foreign dialogue and little sound snippets floating in and out, and then the chorus creeps up again, big dance keys finally joined by diva vocals and a dance rhythm, and you can’t help thinking, “Damn it, that’s right, Dolby is a master of dance grooves, too”. It might seem a little dated sounding if you were clubbing in the late 90s, but considering those guys borrowed more than a little from Dolby, it’s only fair that he get his own back.

Jealous Thing Called Love opens like classic Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass playing a Burt Bacharach samba tune. And he’s still singing about NYC, which is still fine by me. He balances jazz and rock sounds carefully, and then shifts to the ballad progression in the chorus, which sounds a bit like 90s Phil Collins to me. A lovely tune.

Road To Reno is a funny little countrified number, through the bizarre sieve of Thomas Dolby, who can’t do Americana straight, and introduces more Tijuana Brass. It’s fun and reminds me of things like his stabs at Zydeco music on Astronauts & Heretics, which was also a bit bastardized, but fun. The lyric is actually pretty dark, but the melody and those damned horns make you think you’re listening to something else entirely, which reminds us about Dolby’s wicked sense of humour.

The Toad Lickers is Ozark Mountain music with mouth harp sound effects and fiddles and mandolins and dobro and a little bit of sneaky synth and backing vocals. More comedic lyrics, but despite the little sonic tricks, it’s a surprisingly faithful rendition of the genre it’s playing at. The lyric is pure comedy gold, though.

17 Hills is a piano-based ballad in the vein of some of his slower, more introspective tunes. It opens with a stripped down, bluesy chorus, with a verging-on-gospel feel that puts me in mind of Bruce Hornsby’s ’That’s Just The Way It Is’ or Marc Cohn’s ‘Walking In Memphis’. It eventually leads into the verse, which introduces brushed snare and some steel guitar, followed by a very obvious Mark Knopfler doing what he does best, and doing it well. It’s a gorgeous ballad in the traditional sense of a ballad being slow song telling a moving and rather epic story, which, at seven minutes and thirty-six seconds in length, it does pretty much by the book. There’s a nice section where they introduce some fiddles, and a bit more tasteful guitar from Mark, and some swelling and fading strings.

Love Is A Loaded Pistol also opens with piano, but in a more introspective, bluesy jazz piano mode, Thomas singing about New York again, and a lovely string section that isn’t too tart or too sweet. Short, sweet and lovely.

Oceanea was released as a set of remixes, but here you hear it in its original form, which is warm and lush and layered, spacious and grand in a way he’s often played around with in some of his classic album cuts like One of Our Submarines and Budapest By Blimp, and especially I Live in a Suitcase, but with an entirely more organic pallet, complete with some very Belewesque guitar textures. It’s a lovely, lovely piece, even before the female vocals take over and the percussion builds the piece to another level. Then the piece goes out on a wash of sound effects and is replaced with…

Simone opens with a combination of synth strings and theremin, followed by CP-80 and a peculiar drum machine pattern that sounds like highly tweezed congas, and eventually a mambo rhythm asserts itself…. Oh, don’t look at me like that. If you haven’t heard Thomas Dolby before, you need to know that he also genre hops and never, ever repeats himself. And anyway, the song is gorgeous, particularly when the Flamenco guitar and the female backing vocals come in. And when the sax joins in, it’s as good as anything Billy Joel recorded in this vein in the 70s, so hush up. He even has the grace to do some world music flourishes to it with middle eastern vocals and nose flute. It’s really quite affecting, actually.

To The Lifeboats is an acoustic guitar-based song with some more Latin percussion, in an almost Hotel California/Sad Cafe Eagles vibe. There’s a splash of heavily distorted and compressed harmonica and Thomas Dolby answers his question ‘Where are the lifeboats?’ with ‘There are no fucking lifeboats’, and then the song goes deep and loud, in a very Dolbyesque fashion, before returning to the Latin rhythm, supported by piano, and we are reminded that Dolby plays fabulous piano when he wants to. Lovely closer.
Oh, but one more thing…

Spice Train (Radio Edit) is obviously Dolby’s bid to mix a nicely obnoxious dance pop tune version of Spice Train, to fill any gaps left for those who yearn for another Science or Hyperactive. I think it’s a fun tune, but I don’t need it personally. It IS quite good, and I can imagine people shaking it to this, if I were in a particularly cool dance club, of which there are none in my home town, so it’s pretty much all in my head, which might explain why I don’t go to clubs much.

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that, if you aren’t already a fan of Thomas Dolby, this album might not change your mind. I’d like to think it would. Sonically, it’s his best, most lush album yet, and really, if you know his music, lush and sonically gorgeous is what Dolby does. He once famously said in interview that his main instrument is the studio, rather than the keyboard or vocals, and I can understand that, being a bit of a studio geek myself. He makes these three-to-seven minute symphonies in synth and organic textures, with some of the finest studio musicians and guest artists going to augment certain tracks. He also has a great line on bass players, I’ve found.

But none of that gives you a reason to listen to this album. If nothing I’ve said here at least intrigues you about this amazing, highly misrepresented artist, then all I can say is, you may never understand. He’s a far more subtle, diverse, gifted songwriter than most of his contemporaries, and is still sounds like he’s on the cutting edge of recording and music making technology. This album is a perfect jumping on point, but it’s only one album,and the only thing I can see that is wrong with it is that it’s been twenty years, and we could easily have had a few more albums and still have gotten this one at this time. It sounds like Thomas Dolby, all updated for the 21st Century. I listen to this album and hear not merely a continuation but the growth arc and I can hear ghosts of albums that should have been in the meantime, like paleontologists looking for the missing link. We know it’s there, but finding it might prove to be impossible… unless Dolby suddenly releases an archive of material he demo’d but didn’t release.
Nah, I could get that lucky.

Right, so what I would suggest is, if this album doesn’t sound like the Thomas Dolby material you’re interested in, you should really pick up the remastered versions of The Golden Age of Wireless (with Science on it) and The Flat Earth (with Hyperactive on it) and listen to the whole albums, from front to back, so you can actually hear the range of styles that Dolby was meddling with even then. Then you might understand this album and the others that came before it, and in so doing, understand the man and his music a little better.

© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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