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Music Review: Thomas Dolby – A Map of the Floating City

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“There is nothing new under the sun,” Thomas Dolby proclaims in the opening moments of his first album in 20 years. Perhaps not. Still, few performers today are as unique, innovative, and multifaceted as the man who brought us “She Blinded Me With Science” way back in 1983. After all this time, fans should expect something of an “event” release from Dolby, and he has indeed delivered a package that’s both a literary and aural experience full of surprising imagery and soundscapes. And that’s just part of the story.

To build up anticipation for his long-awaited return, Dolby spent two years offering selective samples of the full album using various platforms. For example, “Americana” was a three-song EP released in June 2010 to members of his “Flat Earth Society,” and included the songs “Road To Reno,” “The Toad Lickers,” and “17 Hills,” an engaging and playful trip across America. In November 2010, the second “Flat Earth” EP, called “Oceanea,” included that track along with “Simone” and “To The Lifeboats.”

Reaching outside his website fanbase, “Simone” also debuted on the May 25, 2011 edition of the online radio show, “Dave White Presents.” Back in February 2010, “Love Is a Loaded Pistol” premiered at the TED conference in Long Beach, California. And in the summer of 2011, four songs were used in a web-based game called, like the new album, A Map of the Floating City. In short, Dolby has been leaking chapters from his novel for over a year and only now do we get the full story.

According to Dolby, the album is a three-part “travelogue across three imaginary continents” set in an alternate history. “Amerikana” is Dolby’s reflection on his years living in the U.S. with the music alternating between gentle jazz and rootsy country (especially “Toad Lickers”). “Urbanoia” is a dark look into city life, featuring the lively “Nothing New Under The Sun,” the electronic “Spice Train,” “Evil Twin Brother,” and “A Jealous Thing Called Love,” the songs featured in the web game. “Oceanea” is set on an imaginary coast and ends with the hardest song in the collection, “To The Lifeboats.”

With all this going on, evaluating the single disc of music is problematic. Knowing the full context is necessary to understand what many of the lyrics are referring to. To underline this point, this fall Dolby is on tour and the shows include an hour lecture about the characters in the Transmedia social network game. This game involves the “weary survivors of a global climate catastrophe bartering and trading to stay alive in the face of techno-piracy and mutant squid attacks!” I’m not sure many listeners would connect all this to what they hear on the album, though. So if you’re not part of this interactive fusion of music, song lyrics, game-playing and enigmatic settings and characters, does the album stand on its own merits?

In terms of the music, without question the answer is yes, and a big yes at that. Mark Knopfler, Regina Spektor, Natalie MacMaster, Eddi Reader, Bruce Woolley, and Imogen Heap join Dolby in shaping a song cycle that draws from many genres. Jazz (especially the trumpet and saxophone parts) and New Age are perhaps the best terms to describe many of the musical settings, but such descriptors are uneasy fits. The songs range from gentle keyboard ballads like “17 Hills” to the only real nod to electronica on the album, “Spice Train.” It’s a very satisfying, sophisticated, extremely melodic listen.

However, by design, the listener will find the lyrics a challenging puzzle. On one level, we can enjoy a surrealistic ride and be intrigued by its layers of poetic possibilities. Whether you wish to dig deeper and connect the songs to the alternate world in Thomas Dolby’s mind is your own call. So too is the choice to purchase the single-disc edition reviewed here or the deluxe edition with a second disc including 14 tracks of instrumental versions of most of the songs along with some bonus tracks. Either way, this is a cerebral album for those who like their music polished and carefully constructed, an experience for those willing to go further than casual listening. Perhaps you too will be blinded by metaphysical geography. And perhaps Dolby will be inspired to explore the four other continents on the map.

 

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