A Map Of The Floating City was originally published as a series of three EPs, but finally collected and released as a proper album on October 24, 2011. It’s been seven years since our last musical offering from Professor Dolby.
I’ve talked about Thomas Dolby a couple times before, revisiting his Blinded By Science EP as well as my favorite of all his albums, Aliens Ate My Buick and while the first definitely falls into early-era Dolby, the latter is the transition between his first couple albums and his later, more mature work. A Map Of The Floating City was released on Dolby’s own Lost Toy People label, giving him complete creative control over the final product.
That freedom works both for and against the maestro here, though as a whole, things fall in his favor. Someone might have advised against the Eastern-tinged “Spice Train” or the bizarre (but hilarious) “The Toad Lickers.” Someone might have, but I’m glad they didn’t. “Spice Train” comes off as an exotic travelogue, the second leg of the journey after “Budapest By Blimp” from Aliens Ate My Buick. “The Toad Lickers” sounds exactly like what you would expect from the title – hillbillies on acid set over a fair approximation of a shit-kicking rhythm. It is the most ludicrous thing Thomas Dolby has ever released which makes me all-the-more grateful for its inclusion here. This is the song I force on people who pigeonhole him as a one-hit wonder.
The Bacharach-style bossa nova swing of “A Jealous Thing Called Love” suits Dolby’s vocals perfectly – a latter-day lounge act in a lab coat and mad scientist glasses. Though this album is, for the most part, a more mature effort – it was released 10 days after his 53rd birthday – there are still flourishes of classic Dolby throughout. The occasional horn stabs pop up, echoing 1984’s “Hyperactive.” “Road To Reno” could be “Europa & The Pirate Twins” in a dark alternate universe where the friends were never separated as children. The lyrics of “17 Hills” make me think of “Screen Kiss” from The Flat Earth.
This is not to say that A Map Of The Floating City is just a rehash of earlier Dolby tunes – only that there are aspects to some songs that call to mind his back catalog. Truth of the matter is, aside from a couple of minor missteps, this is an album that functions as its own master, not overtly borrowing or relying on anything that came before. It’s a middle-aged road diary for the post-jet-set world. It is no coincidence that the album is named A Map… since it serves as a guide through the artist’s vision of the world he has built. Most of the songs reference travel, a place, or a region – those that don’t deal with love, and it was pleasant to learn that Mr. Dolby had not lost his wry romantic edge in the nine years between his prior album and this one.
Not long after this album was released, Thomas Dolby accepted a professorship at Johns Hopkins University, a chair he fills to this day. I like to think that if he’d wanted it, he could have turned this album into a reinvention, a rejuvenation of his musical career that elevated him above his current cult collector status, but I’m probably kidding myself. I don’t know that someone like Thomas Dolby could achieve the necessary exposure to launch a second successful music career. In the era of mp3s, streaming, and downloads, YouTube and 25-second attention spans, it’s a wonder anyone can launch even a first.
But for those willing to stretch an attention span to an hour or so, the eleven songs here provide a fantastic listening experience, a leisurely journey across a map that has never existed. And if you start the journey, you’ll want to finish it. It sucks you in, punching your ticket to new destinations every couple of songs. And even if you wanted to jump overboard, you really can’t – as the man himself notes in the closing number, “There are no fucking lifeboats.”