“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. Hes also served as the musical director for the annual TED Conference for 10 years.
Dolbys 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 wouldnt 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 gamers 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 doesnt matter much.
The opening track, Nothing New Under the Sun, has no hidden meanings, however. Accompanied by a forward-charging drumbeat and swaying harmonies, Dolbys 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 its 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”