Album Reviews

Thomas Dolby – A Map of the Floating City

on October 28, 2011, 7:59am
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“Hey, any fool can write a hit,” Thomas Dolby half-jokes on A Map of the Floating City, his first album in almost two decades. Maybe so, but that’s no reason to dismiss this one.

Let this be an inspiration to future one-hit wonders. Dolby, best known to Americans for his 1982 single “She Blinded Me With Science”, could have fallen to the same fate as many of his peers – eking out a career, decade after decade, to increasingly smaller audiences at casinos and state fairs, succumbing to painkillers or reality TV or self-tanner. Instead, he quit music in the early ’90s to start the Silicon Valley company that devised a ringtone synthesizer now embedded in billions of cell phones. He’s also served as the musical director for the annual TED Conference for 10 years.

Dolby’s time off from a solo music career no doubt built up the sharply creative urge that pulses through A Map of the Floating City. Now retired from the tech industry, he lives on the North Sea coast of England and records his music in a lifeboat powered by renewable energy. Musically, he blithely hops from genre to genre, techno pop to salsa to Americana twang to jazz to a soothing, Auto-Tuned ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place in a yoga class (“Oceanea”).

The album is structured like a soundtrack because it is one, sort of; it accompanies the interactive dieselpunk game Dolby developed, The Floating City. He describes the three-part album as “a travelogue across imaginary continents”: Amerikana, Urbanoia, and Oceanea. Without a gamer’s insider knowledge, non-players may miss out on themes or lyrical meanings in the album. But Dolby writes lyrics rich and unexpected enough that a little inscrutability doesn’t matter much.

The opening track, “Nothing New Under the Sun”, has no hidden meanings, however. Accompanied by a forward-charging drumbeat and swaying harmonies, Dolby’s self-aware lyrics about a “legend” struggling to write a hit are crisp with concrete imagery: “Somehow the cancer found a lung/You woke up to hear your words on the tip of every tongue.”

Dolby is at his best when he has a story to tell, whether it’s the traditional boy-meets-girl narrative of “Road to Reno” or the jittery whisper of “Evil Twin Brother”, in which a restless and hot night in New York City erupts into a refrain with a booming dance beat. Listen closely; that’s Regina Spektor voicing the sound snippets of the Eastern European diner waitress.

A Map of the Floating City rewards repeat listens. Elements that sound strange at first, like a jarring blast of harmonica on “To the Lifeboats”, make sense after you let Dolby make his case for them a few times. The sentimental flourish of strings on “Love Is a Loaded Pistol” stretches a bit too far, but overall Dolby proves his keen ear and impeccable taste for arrangements.

Essential Tracks: “Evil Twin Brother”, “Simone”, and “Nothing New Under the Sun”

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DWHarper
October 29, 2011 at 2:47 am

Dolby already addressed the “auto tune” allegations and they are unfounded.  There are compression and equalization effects that give the voice a different timbre from his normal full range voice but no radical changing of pitches by a machine, that “auto tune” suggests.  And the album is gorgeous.  I see in Mr. Dolby, the same penchant for conceptual continuity that Frank Zappa had in his work.  That doesn’t mean that the music is repeating but the stories and myths created by the artist all point to a continuous story being told.  And the Floating City game reinforces this concept, using Dolby’s mythology from all his songs through his career.

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