With the release of his 2nd full-length album in the summer of 1984, Thomas Dolby created the rarest of musical gems; The Flat Earth being a off-beat, complex and overlooked treasure that’s sitting in dollar-bins everywhere from Detroit to London. An album that weaves together the sounds of synth and electronica with acoustic instrumention to create a unexpected symphony of mood and atmosphere. Combining components of lounge, folk and world music into a flowing interlace of contemporary organtic innovations. Admittedly, Dolby seems an unlikely artist to lavish with such praise; his nerdy, bookish style and image rooted in the short-lived, synth-pop / New Romantic movement of the early eighties. An era that feels profoundly out-of step in 2022. Nevertheless.
The Flat Earth was issued to great commercial expectation at the time; after the surprise success of Dolby’s first album, The Golden Age of Wireless, issued just two years prior (1982). The runaway MTV success of the video for the album’s single, She Blinded Me With Science caught the industry a bit off guard. And now the label executives were demanding Dolby provide another hit. Those were strange times at the dawn of the 24-hour music television; it seemed any semi-watchable video could launch a band into the (temporary) realm of mainstream stardom. MTV launching the careers of many synth-pop wonders from the period; A Flock Of Seagulls, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and Eurythmics all receiving their moment or two of commercial success. (And it’s worth noting that all three of the bands mentioned have elements of experimental music laced throughout their discographies; lots of nervous, synthetic innovations worth investigating, if you are inclined).
As for Dolby, his hit single, She Blinded Me With Science sounded right at home in the synth dominated landscape that dominated MTV and the pop radio during the first half of the eighties. Peaking in the Top Ten, She Blinded Me, was nothing more then a novelty or comedy hit. Exactly the kind of new music MTV encouraged for their playlist; deposable music that was devoid of meaning or substance. And the She Blinded Me video (directed by Dolby) perfectly captured the (meaningless) energy of the period; with scientist Magnus Pyke, shouting “Science!” repeatedly over the simplistic, bouncing rhythm of the song. Along with other “mad scientist” lines such as “Good heavens, Miss Sakamoto, you’re beautiful!”. The video employing an overt orientalist depiction of the sexy, female assistant. Let’s just say that there was nothing within the entire presentation to suggest that Dolby was capable producing one the the best synth-pop albums of the period. (A few interesting tracks on his first album, not with standing).
But before we get the Dolby‘s achievement, let us have a word or two about the follow-up single, Hyperactive; to the song’s credit, there is a hard, keyboard-driven groove that isn’t without merit. And the entire track is marginally better than She Blinded Me With Science. But let’s not get carried aways; again, there is just not much to recommendation. Dolby making the same mistake on Hyperactive as She Blinded Me; using comedy and novelty over the complex music he was capable of creating.
Fortunately, the disappointing Hyperactive was only tacked onto the tailend of the American version of the full length album. Making the song easy to avoid. This placement also suggests that Dolby was well aware that his novelty single had little to do with tthe rest of the album. The record company got their single but that’s were the compromise ended. Dolby now setting his sights well beyond the label’s commercial necessities. Because minus Hyperactive, The Flat Earth is a journey into the cinematic pathologies and ambiguities at play inside the artist head. Each track building a nourish humidity of emotional impulses, paranoia and desire. The album starts with the should-have-been single Dissidents. The song synchronizes a thick bass and synth riff that strikes hard and fast into the resistance of the censored artist. Exposing the cultural damage produced when silencing the artists, writers and innovators of society.
One more young writer slid away in the night / Over the border he will drown in light / Hold it, wait a minute / I can’t read my writing, my own writing / Like tiny insects in the palm of history / A domino effect in a cloud of mystery / My writing is an iron fist / In a glove full of Vaseline / But dip the fuse in the kerosene / I too become a dissident
At nearly seven minutes in length, the albums title track creeps out slowly from the aggression of Dissidents. It’s a contrast that never blurs or obscures the album’s overall flow. And the ethereal bass line from Matthew Seligman deserves independent recognition as it introduces us to one of the album’s key components; a slow-burn, art-funk that blends the tracks together without losing the individual songs. With each additional piece of music, The Flat Earth unfolds before us like smoldering blades of thick smoke; the music rolling out with a detailed and lyrical precision that remains human and emotional. The enviroment is personal but abstract; a daydream or a nightmare. The voice never hinting at the sincerity of the song’s intent. Sharp bursts of rhythm guitar jump into the ambient stew of noises. The track pushing forward with nervous tension and doubt. Creating a fascinating fluid environment that is always changing yet remains visceral.
Side two saves the best for last. Combining the last two tracks, Mulu the Rain Forest and I Scare Myself, into an epic, seamless whole. The icy synthetic keyboard gradually giving way to the albums softest but most sinister vocal. Dolby using the limitation of his voice to the songs advantage; his strained pitch showing us just how close to the edge he has gotten. Oddly, Mulu plays like call for spiritual fullfilment. A demand or call-out to a distant past that he has forgotten but remains a part of his soul. A memory that fades slowly into nothingness; just as I Scare Myself comes clicking into the foreground. But unlike Mulu, I Scare Myself feel lighter despite the lyrics fear and doubt; providing a refreshing cocktail jazziness and acoustic guitar that somehow manages to pull us further into the dark-magic of Dolby’s loneliness.
For years I had considered The Flat Earth a hidden treasure. An album that nobody could or would understand or flatter with the written words. Mostly overlooked and ignored since it’s original release, the time has come to acknowledge Dolby’s achievement. The musician creating an album of complex and rewarding music that reaches well beyond the image or style of any era.