Thomas Dolby has returned with his first new studio album in almost 20 years. He withdrew from the music business in the early 1990s and spent the ensuing 15 or so years in Silicon Valley where his company, Beatnik Inc., created the ringtone synthesizer that is embedded in more than three billion mobile phones.
In 2006, he re-entered the music world, moved back to his native England, and released the live album, The Sole Inhabitant. He finally returned to the studio to record A Map Of The Floating City, which will be released next month. There will be a deluxe edition that will include a second disc of instrumentals and bonus tracks.
Dolby gained fame in the ’80s as a part of the electronic, new wave movement, most notably with the 1983 hit single, “She Blinded Me With Science.” Albums including The Golden Age Of Wireless and The Flat Earth also achieved much commercial successful in the United States.
Dolby’s new release is a three-part concept album, basically a personal travelogue that follows his visions and travels across three imaginary continents named Urbanoia, Amerikana, and Oceanea. The music of each part (or continent) is distinct from the others, taking shape as respective entities. Two of the album’s sections have already been made available as EP’s to members of Dolby’s fan club, The Flat Earth Society.
While he contributes his usual creative keyboards throughout, Dolby also features guest artists like Regina Spektor, Imogen Heap, Natalie MacMaster, Eddi Reader, and guitar virtuoso Mark Knopfler on certain tracks. His voice has matured over the past 25 years, and now resonates as a very smooth and supple instrument.
“Urbanoia” has the album’s darkest lyrics, which run counterpoint to music that is actually very melodic in places. It is also the section that comes closest to the artist’s best-known ’80s sound. With its thumping bass/drum foundation and keyboards on top, “Nothing New Under The Sun” is typical Dolby. “Spice Train” finds him experimenting with funky synthesizer sounds.
Taking the listener in a different direction, “Amerikana” could perhaps best be described as Americana music. The gentle ballad “Love Is A Loaded Pistol” also illustrates a new direction for Dolby. And with its ethereal quality, “Oceanea” sounds somewhat in the vein of Tangerine Dream. The album’s only diversion comes from the harsh vocal on “To The Lifeboats,” which seems a little out of place. That moment is mitigated, though, by “17 Hills,” which features Mark Knopfer’s subtle guitar and is the album’s overall best track.
A Map Of The Floating City was not meant to be cohesive but rather to present three separate chapters, each containing its own personality. This is a creative and well-thought out album, which should become Thomas Dolby’s re-coming out party.