During his ’80s heyday, Thomas Dolby was recognized for his technical wizardry as a performer and a producer, but he rarely got his due as a songwriter. The beauty of Dolby’s classic albums The Golden Age Of Wireless and The Flat Earth wasn’t just the way he seamlessly fused electronic and conventional pop orchestration, but the way he used those sounds to tell expansive, cinematic stories about lovers and loners hopping through time and around the globe. For his first new album since 1992’s Astronauts & Heretics, Dolby gets back to what he’s always done best: exploring imaginary environments through sound and words, and always defining them primarily by the humans who populate them.
A Map Of The Floating City is compiled from three EPs: Amerikana, Dolby’s offbeat, Bacharach-esque version of roots music; Oceanea, a trio of lush, pretty ballads that sound like classic Dolby; and the more dance-oriented Urbanoia. The three songs from Urbanoia are the weakest—aside from the clubby “Spice Train,” which marries a thumping beat to Bollywood strings—and get Floating City off to a shaky start, but the Amerikana material that follows is funny, catchy, and strange, and includes the album’s most beautiful song in the epic family history “17 Hills.” Then the album ends strong with the lovely Oceanea songs, which include the bossa nova character sketch “Simone,” about an alluring world-traveler whose “iPod is looping Gipsy Kings.” Those details—what people listen to, what they drink, what they read, and what they see from behind their designer sunglasses—are what make a Thomas Dolby song more than just synthesizer riffs and dry wit. Dolby takes care to construct whole worlds, making sure there are people to talk to there, and scenery to drink in.