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Thomas Dolby
The Golden Age Of Wireless & The Flat Earth reissues Emily Bick , July 24th, 2009 12:14

Thomas Dolby's albums, The Golden Age of Wireless (1983) and The Flat Earth (1984) exemplify everything that is to be valued and cherished in most art, as well as pop music. It strains against sites of human failure. Sometimes this failure is a disconnect between lyrical aggression or loathing or yearning that sweeps through lush waves of orchestration, music that overwhelms you, swells your chest, makes you feel when you don't want to feel anything. It's the catch between the human and the machine.

Or it's just wonkiness: insane key changes, willful over- or underproduction, ambivalence about sex, or ten different flavours of Cartesian angst in one lyric sheet. Even chart-pop perfection can be failure if it makes you think about just what kinds of decisions were made, by whom, and to what ends, to manufacture something to hit particular hooky triggers. These faultlines, breaking points and slippages heighten our response to music because that's the way in: it's where the humanity of its creators shines through.

Thomas Dolby's music hits all of these sweet spots. But it is also utterly, utterly joyous, with a sense of engagement with the world. Curiosity. Kindness. Dolby may just be like that. He's a production polymath who's collaborated with everyone from Def Leppard to George Clinton to Ofra Haza. And he's re-released these albums with all the long lost tracks his fans have speculated about for decades, partly as a result of having long-running forums and a blog (and now Twitter) where he actually has intelligent conversations with them. Everything the man does sparkles with enthusiasm, with a lack of snobbery that's damn refreshing. (Don't believe me? He wrote music for Howard the Duck and starred in Rockula as a funeral salesman who did TV ads for coffins that rotated on spits. Because these seemed like fun things to do.)

The Golden Age of Wireless is kind of a concept album about heartache, international flight, and steampunk optimism. The aesthetic is somewhat like the set design for Terry Gilliam's Brazil, but Dolby leaves the dystopian despair out and treats technological glitches as both elegaic and banal, even though something goes wrong in almost every song. Plane crashes, traffic jams, lost signals, missed connections, acid rain…these themes sit with lyrics about everyday stuff like Coldrex and pylons, film posters, junk food and vague - but powerful - feelings of romantic loss.

'Flying North'-about overcoming the fear of crashing-sounds resigned at the verses and heroic in the choruses. It anticipates the structure of a-ha's 'Living A Boy's Adventure Tale' by a few years, but has more fun with a quickly-tapped arpeggio that sneaks in every so often and turns heroism into bravado and stiff-upper-lippism. 'Radio Silence''s electronic drumline pops like the flapping wings of a rubberband-propelled wind-up bird, with tuning squeals and (There's a sped-up guitar version here too, with shimmering power chords, congas, splashy drumkit freakouts, and get on your knees and rock out guitar solos–all with female voices chanting 'try to think of nothing' over the top.)

All of Dolby's songs sneak up on you. Everywhere there are odd blips, twiddles, noises that are the sonic equivalent of steam blasts from exposed pipes or manhole covers. If any song starts to get too synthy, something organic will roar out of nowhere to crash against and complement it. There are unashamed nods to power pop beneath the cascades of keyboards. But whenever you think you've figured it out, a Dolby song will skip around, his voice catches and trembles, minor key change swoops kick in and the bounciness shifts gears.

There are quite a few rare and recovered tracks here, and they're real gifts. Most of them fit seamlessly with the rest of the album, to the point where it's hard to tell which are the bonus tracks. 'The Wreck of the Fairchild' (A long-lost plane crash song, much sought after by fans) with its XTC-ish dub romp melds into 'Airwaves' like it should have been there all along.

Best of all, The Golden Age of Wireless comes with a bonus video, Live Wireless. This is a concert film from 1983, but Dolby's edited it so he's performing on a cinema stage, dressed like David Sylvian as dapper scientist in immaculate white suit, rouge and eyeliner. Meanwhile, above, Dolby as projectionist hangs around in a grubby white vest, reading girlie mags and drinking tins of lager. He stops the concert by missing reel changes, and all but belches and scratches himself. The conceit works the way the music does: we're all part gutter, part stars, so why not enjoy it?

Where 'Wireless is exuberant, The Flat Earth is more considered, if not quite subdued. There are manic moments: 'White City' sounds like a race through the mathematical models room of the Science Museum, viewed through VR goggles. (A monologue by Robyn Hitchcock only adds to this feeling.) 'Dissidents' jerks around with typewriter clicks and imperial death march chords like a follow-up to Byrne and Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Then there's 'Hyperactive!' which lives up to its title (especially the exclamation mark). Elsewhere, though, our steampunk hero has morphed into a gentleman explorer who, in khaki trousers and cotton vest, looks a lot like the projectionist alter-ego of Live Wireless, crossed with Leslie Howard.

It's more textural, too. Songs like 'The Flat Earth' and 'Mulu the Rainforest' take over where 'Wireless left off : Huge fat synth bass tangles drop-slush into minor keys and a background chatter of cicadas and oncoming rain. We move from to bumbles through the jungle to old-cinema glamour of the Hollywood Hills as 'Mulu' shifts into the slow, measured glide of 'I Scare Myself', like some dude in a pith helmet parting some tall fronds to step into Rick's Café.

Through both albums, Dolby's voice he grunts and growls; It wavers and almost misses notes on 'Urban Tribal'. The last few high notes of lush ballad 'Screen Kiss' and Ryuichi Sakamoto collaboration 'Field Work' are strained and shrill, and richer for the balance between tight production and emotional unravelling. 'Wireless' epic 'Cloudburst at Shingle Street' may be the best example of this: the song starts off with Dolby mumbling with resignation about some lost girlfriend before the whole thing swells with jungle drums and a chanting chorus and he sings, “When I was small, I was in love/ In love with everything/ Now there's only you" before keening off into a wail that echoes out like waves hitting wreckage. It takes guts to say things like this so artfully, and so awkwardly, and mean them.