It’s been two decades since Thomas Dolby last graced us with an album. Truthfully, it’s been hard to claim that we’ve missed him. His hits “She Blinded Me With Science” and “Hyperactive” have hardly faded from our consciousness since they first emerged in the 1980s. His two best albums, 1982’s The Golden Age of Wireless and 1984’s The Flat Earth, have continue to resonate and attract their share of new fans in the years since Dolby opted for the green pastures of Silicon Valley where he created the ringtone synthesizer and forever changed telecommunications.
His prolonged absence has doubtless given him enough time that he can afford to present only the best material on A Map of the Floating City. Dividing the album into three distinct parts––Urbanoia (the dark, unsettling city), Amerikana, a meditation on Dolby’s years in the U.S. and his love of American roots music, and, finally, Oceana, a return to his own roots––Dolby has afforded listeners the opportunity to learn/remember that he’s far from a tech-driven composer.
True to his vision, the opening Urbanoia is dark and filled with a kind of claustrophobic ennui via “Evil Twin Brother” (on which he receives a helping hand from Regina Spektor), a tune that accurately captures life in an age when some apparently see culpability as a liability. “Spice Train” captures the zeitgeist of ‘80s British electronic music without sounding dated or like pastiche.
As the material enters a slightly more organic phase, as he leads us into the album’s Amerikana portion, Dolby loses none of his own character but also appears to have taken a page or two from the ever-brilliant Chris Difford. Witness “Jealous Thing Called Love” and “Road to Reno”, neither of which would sound out of place on Difford’s more recent solo outings. Dolby gets downright, delightfully weird on the country-tinged “The Toad Lickers” (featuring Imogen Heap), a track that truly needs to be heard to be believed. On the epic ballad “17 Hills”, he not only calls on Mark Knopfler and Natalie MacMaster but also turns in what might be his most convincing vocal performance to date, as well as one of his best lyrics.
The two worlds are joined together as Dolby returns home in the album’s final moments via the tender and Steely Dan-inflected “Simone” and the fascinating and stunning closer “To the Lifeboats”. In the end Dolby emerges as one of those rare artists who’s managed to grow with the times while retaining his artistic vision, who has taken a prolonged hiatus and yet sounds like he never left. He’s the perfect mature pop artist—one who makes smart music for smart people, who avoids cloying sentimentality and the platitudes that seem to sprout like forest mushrooms as some artists grow older, who balances humor with tenderness, who knows exactly how to probe the most sensitive parts of the human condition without causing harm. It’s great to have him back, and to anticipate all the great music that’s sure to follow A Map of the Floating City.