Thomas Dolby Re-examined on His New Greatest Hits Compilation

It's easy to think of the neon and synthesizers of the 1980s as fodder for nostalgia. However, Hyperactive demonstrates how much heart, wit, and humor went into Thomas Dolby's records.

Thomas Dolby


27 July 2018

For some musicians, it's the non-musical output that sparks some of the most exciting endeavors. No one could deny Thomas Dolby's place in electronic music history. His output from the early 1980s through today reflect the innovations in electronic music programming; their energy, sonic scope, and how they make people dance. His musical street cred extends to collaborations with George Clinton, Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell, the Ethel String Quartet, and David Bowie. As the musical director of TED Conferences between 2001 and 2012 Dolby was front and center at, arguably, the most prominent North American technology and cultural events of our age.

Outside of performing and writing, Dolby created and served as CEO of his own company (Beatnik, which developed synthesizers for mobile phones), penned a bestselling autobiography, and filmed a documentary (The Invisible Lighthouse). In 2014 Dolby began teaching at Johns Hopkins University, and in the fall he'll lead a new undergraduate program, exploring music composition and virtual and augmented reality, at the Peabody Institute.

Hyperactive, a retrospective of past hits and fan favorites, acts as his last commercial release before academia swallows up his time for years to come. It's more than just a greatest hits record – it's a survey of his career, curiosities, and courage in exploring whatever happens to be at the forefront of musical technology. Tracks like "Radio Silence" and "Windpower" bleed an unavoidable 1980s aesthetic, but their compositional quirks and turns imbue them with a sense of charm, elevating them beyond innocuous new wave relics. Sure, some tracks are pure goofy fun, but they're the kind of goofy fun we need.

For longtime Dolby fans, Hyperactive is a great collection revisiting some of his best tracks, but the album is perhaps best served to new listeners looking to explore the gentleman's back catalog. While we can look back at the 1980s as a time of synthesizer fetish and loud neon hues, it's refreshing to discover (or rediscover) an artist who used the aesthetic as a fertile ground for exploration and experimentation. Dolby didn't just survey the possibilities of electronic music; he dug into the marrow of the sound to work out exactly what was possible within pop music.

Dolby's speak/singing on "The Devil Is an Englishman" may sound hokey at first listen, but it's an integral part of the song's charm. The stuffy, leering character Dolby plays is at once as creepy as he is absurd, almost like a humorous response to Vincent Price's "Thriller" monologue. "Eastern Bloc" filters a Bo Diddley beat through pop sunshine and twinkling pianos. Title track "Hyperactive" blasts out with Latin horns and delightfully glitchy funk bass. Dolby pushed past what may have seemed unfashionable, making the quirky sound fresh and innovative.

There's also heaps of sincerity and tenderness Dolby's music. "Screen Kiss" is a vulnerable track that exposes Dolby's fabulous falsetto amidst evocative lyrics and unusual vocal phrasing. His crooning on "Cruel" is an apologetic jewel that slides a sense of humanity next to synthetic horns and buckets of reverb. For all his futuristic leanings, processing, and programming, Dolby never neglected the necessity of a good song.

Of course, a Thomas Dolby retrospective wouldn't be complete without "She Blinded Me With Science". Like many tracks on Hyperactive, it's a glorious slice of retro kitsch replete with synths and programmed dance beats. Like "May the Cube Be With You" and "Close But No Cigar" they're fun, harmless tracks that don't take themselves too seriously. Dolby wasn't interested in posturing or constructing an untouchable persona like many of his 1980s partners in electronic crime. Dolby simply did what he wanted his fans to do: have fun.

A sense of curiosity runs through Hyperactive, likely the same kind of curiosity that eventually led Dolby to start his own company and develop academic curriculums. Unjustly overlooked as a one-hit wonder, there's far more energy, humor, and pathos in his music than the casual observer may realize.

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