Dolby’s Flat Earth. Half Perfect.
A few days ago, I had the honor of remembering–in some admittedly rather nostalgic ways–the spring of 1982 and my first encounters with Thomas Dolby. Two years later, Dolby released his second album, The Flat Earth. I have no doubt that I was the first person in my hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas, to buy the album. Certainly, I bought it the day it came out; one of the anticipated magical Tuesdays when the new albums appeared on the shelves. Well, I suppose that maybe there was a secret Thomas Dolby fan club in my Kansas town, meeting randomly in the wheat fields under waning moons, but I suspect not.
I’m fairly certain I was the most die hard Thomas Dolby fan west of Kansas City and east of Denver.
I remember devouring The Flat Earth, wanting to understand and deconstruct every element of it, and cherishing the entire encounter. “Only a fool would blame the death of rock n roll. . . .”
I was fifteen, possessed a good vinyl collection, a solid stereo system, and some top-notch Sennheiser headphones. At that time–the kind of time and leisure that only a modern teenager of western civilization enjoys, before video games kidnapped our young–I would finish my school work, turn out all of the lights, start an album, and listen intently with the headphones.
This Thomas Dolby sounded nothing–and I mean nothing–like the Thomas Dolby of The Golden Age of Wireless. At least to my young ears. Where Golden Age was electronic, Flat Earth was organic. Where Golden Age was clever, Flat Earth was wise. Where Golden Age was curt, Flat Earth meandered. Where Golden Age told one Bradbury-esque story after another, Flat Earth offered images, doubts, and questions. Indeed, if Golden Age was more Ray Bradbury, Flat Earth was more Philip K. Dick.
Side one especially grabbed me. The images floated through my head, caught between the poles of the left and right phones. Stereo and yet more so. Anti-communists smuggling out information from within the Soviet Union as typewriters become sampled and drummed and sampled some more; a man limited by his own securities, his imaginative longings wanting to find liberation; a wistful love for some film noir Hollywood starlet.
Side two never held up quite as well as side one in my mind. The strings and wind chimes beg the listener to wonder and enter into a dark Southern California urbanscape for about 24 glorious seconds, but the bass and drums come in way too forced, shattering the mythic aura Dolby so expertly created on side one. It’s never fully absent on the first song, but “White City” goes quickly from being a thing of beauty to a pounding repetition. “Mulu the Rain Forest” manages to recapture some of the magic, as does the brilliant remake of “I Scare Myself.”
“Hyperactive,” while certainly clever, comes across as a song that should’ve have been made a b-side, breaking any coherent possibilities for The Flat Earth. The mad scientist of “She Blinded Me with Science” returns, and novelty, rather than beauty, defines the album as a whole.
Side one, though, even nearly 30 years later, holds up perfectly. It is sheer musical genius.
Through it all, Dolby’s utterly earnest (if not always beautiful) voice and Matt Seligman’s bass hold everything together.
While I’m probably being more harsh than I should about side two, I would highly recommend picking up a copy of the album. Side two only seems less than perfectly interesting precisely because side one is so perfect.
I would also forego buying the 2009 expanded edition, as the additional songs really do nothing except further demonstrate Dolby’s novelty side. There’s too much “Purple People Eater” in this music.