I don’t know why I’m so astonished by the caliber of Oceanea, the new EP from Thomas Dolby, and his first release of all-new music in almost 20 years. Heaven knows, the music press is lousy right now with favorable write-ups for recent activity from acts who last troubled the pop charts when Ronald Reagan was president. Blancmange‘s first album since 1985 just got a four-star review in MOJO, the Human League is gearing up to drop a new full-length on Wall of Sound (the same label that issued Grace Jones‘ 2008 comeback Hurricane), and it seems like all of North America took a coffee break at 12:30 PM last Friday to tune into OMD’s live-from-SXSW performance on KEXP. So why not Thomas Dolby?
Perhaps because Dolby stepped away from the music biz for so long. Whereas many of the aforementioned have continued slogging away, typically with diminishing returns—when was the last time you listened to one of OMD’s albums from the ’90s?—Dolby went on a lengthy hiatus shortly after 1992’s Astronauts & Heretics. While some contemporaries tried to comb over their bald spots and kept plugging away on the casino circuit abetted by hired guns half their age, Dolby made a detour to Silicon Valley, and helped invent the polyphonic ringtone synthesizer implanted in over 2 billion Nokio mobile phones. He also assumed the role of Music Director for the cutting-edge TED Conference. That’s pretty badass. As much as I adore “Come On Eileen,” I don’t think the world’s leading thinkers, inventors and orators are beating down a path to hang out with Dexy’s Midnight Runners in the 21st century.
The three songs of Oceanea serve as a teaser for Dolby’s forthcoming full-length A Map of the Floating City. Don’t expect kinetic electro-funk a la his hit singles “She Blinded Me With Science” and “Hyperactive.” These elegant originals hew much closer to introspective back catalog favorites such as “Airwaves” and “Screen Kiss,” displaying an unsettling smoothness reminiscent of prime Steely Dan; check out the tension Dolby creates by juxtaposing a bit of terse language with the mellow Brazilian rhythms of “To The Lifeboats.” Back in the day, some folks might have found it odd that a synth-pop boffin like Dolby was tapped to produce records for Prefab Sprout and Joni Mitchell, but listening to Oceanea those collaborations make much more sense. Dolby appreciates how to complement idiosyncratic songwriters because, ultimately, that is his own strongest asset as an artist. Which is fortunate, since using computers to make music isn’t nearly as novel today as it was back in the mid-’80s.
“Twenty years ago, I could always get away with doing something so unusual sounding, so mind-blowing and unlike anything anyone else had heard before, that it was less important to have a great song underpinning it,” Dolby admitted to me five years ago, when he released his live retrospective DVD The Sole Inhabitant. “These days, I have essentially the same tools as everybody else. Writing a great song with a great arrangement is now, in some ways, a more precious skill than just being able to work the tools. That’s one thing that sets me apart. There are lots of good technicians, and they can make a state-of-the-art sounding record, but you don’t hear that many great songwriters around, with a unique voice lyrically, and a different approach to what they’re doing.” But give Oceanea a spin, and you will.
Welcome back, Thomas Dolby. Next time don’t stay away so long.
DJ El Toro hosts the variety mix show on Wednesday nights from 9 PM to 1 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His weekly rant, Weird At My School, appears infrequently on the KEXP Blog. Please follow DJ El Toro (aka Kurt B. Reighley) on Twitter and/or Tumblr!