Pop Quiz: Without thinking about it too much, what’s your favorite Thomas Dolby album?
Trick question: You don’t have one!
I’ve never understood why Thomas Dolby didn’t take over the world. His music is more complex, more diverse, more ambitious, and more intelligent than that of just about anyone out there (with the possible exception of Scritti Politti‘s Green Gartside… and maybe XTC). You would think that would be appealing to people, but maybe it isn’t. Or maybe it isn’t appealing to enough people. Maybe what I think of as ambition, diversity, and complexity others just see as quirkiness, gimmickry, or just plain weirdness. Maybe cock-rock or slow jams or country ballads are the safer choice – not that there is anything wrong with these genres, but they lack a certain adventurousness and they’re not all that big on innovation.
After the smash success of his wonderful one-hit in 1982, “She Blinded Me With Science” off of The Golden Age Of Wireless and the somewhat less stellar performance of its follow up, “Hyperactive” off sophomore effort The Flat Earth, Dolby had already been reconciled to where-are-they-now status by the time his third LP, Aliens Ate My Buick was released on April 13, 1988. In case you were wondering, this is my favorite Thomas Dolby album.
Ever the stylistic chameleon, even within the confines of a single record, Dolby chose Aliens… to serve as his parody-cum-tribute to the rock and roll pantheon. This is not to say that the songs themselves are parodies (though several of them verged on just that) but his forays into funk music and rock’n’roll tropes like sex, drugs, and motor-vehicles come off as more than a bit tongue-in-cheek.
And that’s part of why this is my favorite Thomas Dolby record. It’s all over the place stylistically and it goes full bore on everything. It starts out with the inimitable Robin Leach introducing lead-off track “The Key To Her Ferrari,” in his classic Lifestyles… delivery: “There was one room in her house that was always kept locked. It was… the garage!” Dolby doesn’t even pretend that the titular car is anything more than a motorized aphrodisiac, as is made evident in the hilarious spoken interlude that serves as the song’s centerpiece. “And then… I saw her. She was a bright red ’64 GTO with fins and gills like some… giant piranha fish… some obscene phallic symbol on wheels. Little rivers of anticipation ran down my inseam as I kicked those 500… Italian horses into life!” It’s a fantastic rocker with a nod to swing tradition.
He is at his funkiest on George Clinton‘s insane “Hot Sauce” and the drug send up of “May The Cube Be With You,” the latter featuring an irresistible slap bass from Terry Jackson as Dolby weaves his tale of “the perfect pleasure drug” which was passed along to him by a martian. That bass is also super-funky on the album’s lead single “Airhead,” his take on the portrayal of females in rock video. And he seems almost prescient in his condemnation of disposable culture in the funkified “Pulp Culture.”
But while Thomas Dolby has always had a gift for upbeat electro-dance-pop, his real genius shines through on his quieter, more introspective cuts. This is true of tracks like “Weightless” and “One Of Our Submarines” off of his first album and “Screen Kiss” and “I Scare Myself” from his second. Aliens Ate My Buick is no different.
On “My Brain Is Like A Sieve,” his novel take on heartbreak, over hushed Latin percussion he touches on a universal truth that “sometimes it’s easier to forget all the bad things,” before asking, “When you said you love me, when you told me you care / that you would be a part of me, that you would always be there / Did you really mean to hurt me?” This really resonated with me in 1988 & ’89 at an age where I was going through my first break-ups and my first heartache. So, for me, this song grounded the album at a very personal, emotional level, a much more vital connection than the cleverness and wink-and-a-nod lyrics on some of the other tracks.
The true masterpiece on this record though – and in contention for Thomas Dolby’s best song ever – is the eight-and-a-half minute slow groover, “Budapest By Blimp,” which finds our hero once again seeking and searching for the elusive (and unnamed in this song) Europa from prior albums. The song is as lovely and sprawling as the image conjured by its title, but also serves as a metaphor for feelings of detachment. “Maybe better you hold me close than understand / How far away I’ve drifted…” Also noteworthy within the song is Larry Treadwell‘s guitar solo that closes the second act.
Nearly thirty years later, this album is better than it was when it was first released. Gone are any expectations that it was going to be Blinded By Science Redux, an electrolicious synthgasm from one end to the other. Instead, it shows tremendous growth and confidence as a musician, an expansion of sound and style over his previous records.
So I recommend checking it out if you don’t already know it, especially if you read the first line of this article and thought, “Wait, Thomas Dolby had albums?” or, even worse, “Who was Thomas Dolby again?” Either way, there’s a good chance you’ll have a better answer to that question I asked.