Here’s an interesting thing: I’ve been blogging since 2003…and maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of my posts have addressed music to some degree. Of all the musicians I’ve addressed in my posts, which one has drawn the most e-mail…which one generates, maybe once or twice a year, an out-of-the-blue e-mail asking me if I can provide a copy of the tracks described therein? The one on Thomas Dolby’s The Golden Age of Wireless and a hypothetical compilation of the tracks on its various versions. In fact, just a few days ago I got an e-mail asking me for those tracks. I was all set to note these facts and wonder why the hell Dolby, or his label(s), or whoever, couldn’t get their act together and release the album in proper form…but semi-miraculously, such a reissue is about to come to be.
Later this month, expanded versions of Dolby’s first two albums, The Golden Age of Wireless and The Flat Earth, are set to be reissued in two-disc versions, with the second disc in each case being a DVD and the first disc consisting of the original album release plus contemporary bonus tracks. Alas, according to this Wikipedia entry, the Wireless expanded tracks are not the longer versions heard on the Blinded by Science EP (except for “Airwaves,” which was truncated in its US release). That’s the less-than-good news in the good news. The better news is that it’s possible those versions will be made available for download, as Dolby notes in his blog. I do hope so…because of those EP versions, “She Blinded Me with Science,” “Flying North,” and particularly “One of Our Submarines” are definitive. I regard the shorter versions as truncations, rather than the longer versions as expansions. “Windpower” I’m a bit more indifferent to…and the new version does restore “Airwaves” to its original length.
Dolby is generally regarded as a synth-pop musician…and there’s really no arguing that description, but what many miss is Dolby’s unusual accomplishment within this genre. Synths have always been curiously coded, on the one hand as “cold” and mechanical and yet forming the core of most dance music – the most embodied and physical of genres – since at least the early ’80s. But what they’re rarely associated with is warmth…and Dolby managed to use synthesizers to create, essentially, a highly textured singer-songwriter’s world, in a more abstract, post-modernist mode compared to the more traditional confessional singer-songwriter style. (It is not at all surprising that Dolby reveres, and covered, Joni Mitchell.) Partly this is a matter of composition: analyze even the most seemingly direct of Dolby’s songs (say, “She Blinded Me with Science”) and you’ll run into a number of rather sophisticated, almost jazz-like chordal voicings. It’s also his lyrics: at his best (which he was on these first two albums) Dolby achieved a wonderful songwriterly poetics, in which compression is yoked with striking and effective figuration, to create emotive lyrics that were not quite nailed down to clumsy specifics but which were resonant and specific enough to avoid becoming the lyrical equivalent of cotton candy.
It is, therefore, a bit of mystery how Dolby managed to fall so far off the rails. “She Blinded Me with Science” is funky, direct, humorous, and (obviously) a hit single, and “Hyperactive” (from The Flat Earth) more so (except for the “hit single” part, which fell a bit shorter)…but Dolby seemed to lose his nerve, or his interest, and Aliens Ate My Buick was stunningly shallow, compared with his first two albums. “Airhead” was disposable if catchy…and even though I really should re-listen to that album, I remember at the time it seemed a complete sell-out in an almost classical sense: eccentric, talented British musician achieves success with quirky but catchy song, moves to LA, marries starlet, does soundtrack for abominable films, puts out crappy synth-funk album… As I implied, I haven’t listened to much of that album for years…but in memory, looking over the track listing, some of it’s probably better than I remembered. And the follow-up, Astronauts & Heretics, was a bit of return to form…except that it suffered from a common late-eighties problem: the synths were, paradoxically, sonically wealthier but more artificial. (My brief take on synth evolution: sometime in the eighties, synths became both more naturalistic and highly artificial: the first quality was a result of complexity of waveform, while the second was a result of the general trend toward way-overloading treble frequencies in the eighties, to the extent of creating positive ear-weariness: everything was mega-treble in the eighties: not just synths, but percussion, guitars, even bass. It didn’t help that, at the onset of the CD era, a lot of older titles were transferred to CD without taking into account RIAA equalization, and as a result were ultra-trebley, harsh, and brittle…and in an example of some sort of Murphy’s Law of sound (wherein any accidental sonic artifact is reproduced intentionally), that harsh brightness came to define the eighties synth sound.)
Back to Dolby: I said earlier that Dolby seemed to lose interest in his recording career. His lack of output since that time speaks to this…and of course, he became very involved in various software-related ventures (and, it seems, made a load of money in the same) – but the last few years have seen his interest in music re-emerging, so that the reissue of these first two albums (along with a collection of his singles) constitutes a run-up to an actual new release, forthcoming later this year.
Here’s hoping the new music fulfills the promise of his talent and that that talent hasn’t diminished over the rather many years since his early musical career peak.
(PS: When I moved this blog over to WordPress, one reason was because of this unannounced Blogger policy. At the time, none of my entries had been disappeared…but sure enough, the Dolby entry referenced above no longer exists at my old blogspot.com URL…even though its surrounding entries, with no mp3s, do. Fucking bastards. No notification whatsoever, of course.)