Thomas Dolby, A Map Of The Floating City

Published on December 20th, 2011 in: Current Faves, Gaming, Music, Music Reviews, Reviews |

By Jemiah Jefferson

dolby map of floating city

It’s somewhat startling to realize that this is Thomas Dolby’s first album in twenty years. Since the 1992 non-success of Astronauts & Heretics, his last album of originals, Dolby busied himself in Silicon Valley, inventing and patenting applications involved in ring tone technology. This is the sort of thing that the cerebral, nay—pointy-headed—Dolby would do when the music industry started to bore him. But what happened after the man created his patents, got rich, got bored (again), and went home?

Once a musician, always a musician. Dolby began touring again, solo, several years ago, and to his audiences, dropped teasing hints that he was working on new music. A Map of the Floating City, in all its forms, is the result of that lengthy process, revealing painstaking perfectionism that occasionally gets in the way, but mostly creates a multilayered experience that develops in complexity with every revisit.

Thematically divided into three parts, Urbanoia, Amerikana, and Oceanea, each section shares a musical approach befitting its name. Urbanoia provides most of the obvious electronica on the album, whereas Amerikana takes on the idioms of New Country and Ella Fitzgerald blues. Oceanea (previously reviewed on Popshifter ) is delicate, natural, and lovely, depicting a sense of coming home with all its pleasures, comforts, and problems.

Those seeking a high-NRG-funk, synth-heavy sound similar to Dolby’s earliest and best-known hits, “She Blinded Me With Science” or “Hyperactive,” may find themselves disappointed with this collection of songs that range from elegiac to quirky to the point of silliness, but almost none of them “funky” or “high tech.”

The exception to this general rule is the intoxicating “Spice Train,” currently taking the place of what would have been a single ten years ago, but in the 21st century world of iTunes and Amazon single-track downloads, singles don’t make a whole lot of sense for a smaller record label.. “Spice Train” is danceable—almost involuntarily so—with a bloopy bass beat that wouldn’t be out of place on Bjork’s Homogenic and a flavor of violin-laden Bollywood musical romance. Great lyrics, too; it is one of the tracks that seem most autobiographical, along with album opener “Nothing New Under the Sun.” In them, he takes on the role of the world-weary musical merchant, “pitching [his] tent wherever there’s a floor to fill.” But this is fictional, too, in fact if not in emotion; as romantic a notion as it is to imagine Dolby in lab coat, goggles, and headphones as a nomadic DJ/noir sap for hire, that was never his life, really. But he describes it so beautifully, and performs it with such conviction, that it becomes believable.

It must be understood that funk and synthpop have only ever been tools in Thomas Dolby’s toy box; he has mastered them and they hold no more interest for him than any other voice, tool, or medium that he could use. He displays plenty of them on Floating City: jazzy piano; chipper synths; backing vocals from Imogen Heap, Eddi Reader, Regina Spektor, and Natalie MacMaster; even getting Mark Knopfler to provide some of his trademark guitar on the epic story-song “17 Hills.”

But again, these are merely pretty wrapping for the real skills displayed in the impeccable songwriting. Even the songs that, musically speaking, are somewhat dull (or at least basic) have brilliant lyrics about more of those noir saps falling in love with the wrong dames, yokels on drugs, and longing so intense it drives a man insane. Dolby’s primary tools are humor, irony, and a genuinely literary sensibility. Floating City‘s songs are stories, each and every one; some of them even have plots, but all of them have characters and stakes.

This narrative skill, combined with Dolby’s technological bent, found yet another medium in which to build worlds and create stories in the form of the marvelously steampunky online game housed at The game and the album inform each other: The album’s songs describe what it’s like to live in this imaginary world, much like our own but fundamentally different, and the game describes that world and provides a form of interactive experience with it. The Floating City game and website would be a remarkable achievement in and of itself, but both songs and site become a deeper, richer experience. And it’s fun, especially for longtime Thomas Dolby fans. It’s a superb example of cross-media branding and engagement, and so many other companies (and bands!) could learn from its sterling example.

And yet, the album, on its own, no matter how lovingly crafted and expertly performed, is mostly just “nice” if the necessary attention cannot be paid to the whole package. This record isn’t going to be setting the world on fire; it’s not going to give the Ke$ha and Gaga fans a new workout jam (except for, again, the hotness that is “Spice Train”). This is a record for grownups—and smart, literate, discriminate ones at that—but in its proud intellectual and aesthetic superiority, it’s not as fun as it could be. And Thomas Dolby should be all about fun. It is possible to create well-crafted, smart, narrative-based songs that make one want to shake one’s rump-a; once upon a time, Thomas Dolby himself did ’em. (Remember “Dissidents”? I do.) The good news is, Dolby seems to be back on the music scene for good now, and that means he will make more music in the future, and another brainy dance floor banger seems likely.

If we are giving grades, this is a strong A-minus. Listen to it—but really listen.

Dolby performs “Spice Train” for the local Los Angeles Fox affiliate morning show. This is a fantastic one-man-and-a-laptop performance that shows what he’s got. (Definitely still the dimples, cheekbones, eyelashes, and white-boy funk.) Bonus dancing by the TV anchor staff.

The Map Of The Floating City was released on October 25 and is available to order from Thomas Dolby’s website.

One Response to “Thomas Dolby, A Map Of The Floating City

  1. Popshifter » Thomas Dolby, A Map Of The Floating City « Jemiah Jefferson • Author • Vampire Quartet:
    December 20th, 2011 at 1:47 pm

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