The Flat Earth – Thomas Dolby (1984)

The Flat Earth cover art
The Flat Earth cover art

I still remember the EP. It was one of my first from the local college area record store. Blinded By Science was unique and potent little four song release that combined English WWII era nostalgia with futuristic imagery. “One of Our Submarines”, “Windpower” and the title song would become college radio favorites thanks to clever writing and atmospherics. No one would have guessed that “Blinded By Science” would become one of 1982’s biggest runaway hits, but that’s what happened when the follow up LP The Golden Age of Wireless was released later that same year.

Fast forward to 1984. I was a high school senior and Thomas Dolby’s “Blinded By Science” had become his signature hit song, even if that was all people knew him by. Its hyper funk pacing was enhanced by the allure of a clever music video that made a bespectacled Dolby a household name. Before 1982, he was virtually unknown in America, despite having helped shaped the sound of everyone from Foreigner to The Thompson Twins in the years leading up to his first hit.

Instead of following up with more of the same, Dolby turned inward to craft an album that was not so much made for MTV as it would be a showcase for his diverse range of production and arranging skills. Those skills were well honed to the point of making his second album far more evolved musically than the typical sophomore effort.

One of Dolby’s signature traits was the ability to make new wave music that did not sound new wave. Much of this was achieved with this unique mix of old and new sounds that mixed the Victorian and postmodern. In many ways this made him the first steampunk artist to emerge out of the new wave scene.

This attention to historical detail would manifest itself in both Dolby’s selection of songs, including a cover of the jazz classic “I Scare Myself” and the analog sheen that came with the funky bass playing of Matthew Seligman.

Seligman’s touch gives the albums opener “Dissidents” a straight forward funk edge not so apparent in Dolby’s earlier work. Like “Blinded By Science” a few years before, “Hyperactive” continues with Dolby’s exploration of syncopation in melody with yet another spastic top 40 hit. That single lives on an island as the rest of the album is almost experimental.

What makes The Flat Earth so special was its timeless songs that explore ambient qualities without becoming formless or sprawling.  The title song’s wonderful layering and soulful vocals only reinforce Dolby’s awareness of history and the mixing of genres. Even the cover art would suggest the segmented rhythm of songs like “Dissidents” and “Hyperactive”.

Other songs like “Screen Kiss” feature the subtle keyboard washes that would become a Dolby staple in projects with Prefab Sprout. It’s from this point on that Dolby’s work would favor his creative impulse vs. the need to create hits. The notable exception was Aliens Ate My Buick, a foray into funk that was not so well received (it did have its moments however).

Dolby’s reputation as a pioneering producer and arranger was made with hits like “Blinded By Science” or “One Of Our Submarines”, but instead on the higher than usual production standards achieved with The Flat Earth.

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