Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Thomas Dolby 4: Astronauts & Heretics

The ‘80s were already a distant memory by the time hair metal gave way to grunge, so where did that leave an innovator such as Thomas Dolby? Most recently he had made a cameo as the schoolmaster in Roger Waters’ all-star staging of The Wall in Berlin, which he actually pulled off. Meanwhile, on Astronauts & Heretics he continued concocting accessible, quirky pop colored by synthesizers but not dominated by them.

“I Love You Goodbye” takes us to the bayou—literally, with not only Cajun legends Michael Doucet and Wayne Toups on the track, but swampy percussion and sound effects. It’s a wonderful musical blend that unfortunately doesn’t permeate the album, but it’s a terrific way to start, and at least it doesn’t wear out its welcome. Two fairly short songs follow; “Cruel”, basically a duet with Eddi Reader, is a much softer change of pace, then Michael Doucet’s fiddle (and some of that percussion) returns to color the jaunty “Silk Pyjamas”. “I Live In A Suitcase” sounds most like his Flat Earth period, if a little more contemporary-sounding.

As long as we’re looking back, the clattery “Eastern Bloc” is pointedly designated as “Sequel To Europa And The Pirate Twins, 1981”, which is obvious in the second verse. It’s a throwback, but not a retread, particularly with Eddie Van Halen on lead guitar. Eddie also plays on “Close But No Cigar”, but we wonder how much the overt Beatle sample cost to procure. It relies a little too much on the title for the lyrical content, but it leads in well to the slightly retro “That’s Why People Fall In Love”, this one featuring harmonies from Ofra Haza. The mood turns way down for “Neon Sisters”, prefaced by a dramatic dedication, and featuring a few members of Siouxsie’s Banshees. Given the times, it’s not clear whether the subject of the song succumbed to AIDS or addiction, but it’s haunting nonetheless. We’ve had a lot of pop so far, and then “Beauty Of A Dream” provides a timeless conclusion, with the added pleasure of both Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia on the track.

The album’s bookends make Astronauts & Heretics a pleasant surprise. It’s pretty catchy, with his past wackiness completely toned down. One gets the idea that he was more concerned in making an album he wanted to make, stocked with his wish list of collaborators. He then pointedly stayed away from courting the pop charts to further explore to possibilities of music in the computer industry. Which made perfect sense.

Thomas Dolby Astronauts & Heretics (1992)—3

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