Friday, September 15, 2023

Thomas Dolby 2: The Flat Earth

That pesky hit single was a double-edged sword for Thomas Dolby, as he suddenly felt pigeonholed as something of a novelty act. He was already well into the process of recording his next album, but had to cut it short due to promotional obligations, which didn’t allow him to adjust the schedule for completing it. The way he tells it, The Flat Earth suffered as a result. It certainly feels short, and at 37 minutes, it is.

Somebody else pointed out that where the first album predicted steampunk, here he’s the khaki-panted world traveler. “Dissidents” burbles in, soon joined by scratchy guitars for a pretty funky track about, well, being a dissident writer. The title track begins much the same way, but the rhythm is more subtle, with textures that would soon be equated with mainstream embrace of so-called world music. (This is a good place to call out Kevin Armstrong’s exemplary guitar work throughout the album.) Even more gorgeous is the melancholy “Screen Kiss”, a portrait of a small town girl ruined by the big time. Listen for Matthew Seligman’s wonderful bass playing, very evocative of Jaco Pastorius on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album.

After a mysterious intro, “White City” sounds more like the last album, with another impenetrable lyric. The barely audible narration by Robyn Hitchcock as “Keith” doesn’t clear anything up, not that we’d expect it would. “Mulu The Rain Forest” suffers from an overuse of effects; the piano and vocal on their own are just plain gorgeous. His cocktail jazz arrangement of “I Scare Myself” sounds so much like him few might have realized it was originally written and recorded by Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks seventeen years before. As something of a reward to the those hoping for more comedy, “Hyperactive!” provides the closest echo of “She Blinded Me With Science”, loaded as it is with wacky voices and voiceovers, matched by a truly twisted video. Still, that’s why we can’t help but chuckle at the trombone whenever it appears, but the song sounds very out of place following what’s gone before.

Those who really paid attention to his first album won’t be too surprised with The Flat Earth. He’s definitely reaching here, looking for new sounds and making the most of available technology. Considering how labored it all its, who knows if more time would have improved it any? (The converted should certainly seek out the 2009 import remaster, which loads up the balance of the CD with off singles, a collaboration with Ryuchi Sakamoto, and soundtrack work, plus a couple of live tracks. Some but not all of these were included in the streaming 40th anniversary edition of the album, which made up the balance with more live tracks and edits for a two-hour program.)

Thomas Dolby The Flat Earth (1984)—3

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