Thomas Dolby The Flat Earth Review

Album. Released 2009.  

BBC Review

Something of a minor masterpiece

Daryl Easlea 2009

EMI had tried to make Thomas Dolby into a star with his 1982 debut album The Golden Age Of Wireless, and it seemed that he was destined to be a much-loved cult artist, without hitting pop's jackpot.

But then, he went and cornered the market as the country's leading pop-boffin after his US smash, She Blinded Me With Science, one of the few tracks in pop music to feature 1970s TV celebrity scientist Dr. Magnus Pyke.

When The Flat Earth was released in March 1984, no-one in the UK quite knew what to make of Dolby. And he delighted and perplexed his audience with a record that refused to fit into any pigeonhole whatsoever.

The old first side is one of the best in 80s popular music. It is like a Joni Mitchell album made by a bloke from Suffolk. After the electronica of Dissidents, we have two of his most tender tracks. The title cut, with its metronomic beat underlining a sweet, touching eco/personal sentiment (''This flat old earth is in your gentle hands'') is arguably his best song. Screen Kiss is one of the few tracks that mention Croydon and get away with it. This melancholia drifted over directly into his production work with Prefab Sprout.

Side two was always more problematic. White City with Robyn Hitchcock's monologue was always fairly good value, as was the straight trombone-heavy version of Dan Hicks' I Scare Myself. Mulu The Rainforest sounds as skewiff as it did in 1984. Hyperactive, originally written for Michael Jackson (and Dolby's sole UK Top 20 entry) closed the original album. Its machine-driven funk felt slightly out of place jarring with the overall sensitivity of The Flat Earth. It does, however, remain quite a hoot.

The album has been augmented with in-era bonuses, such as Get Out Of My Mix, the first appearance of Dolby's Cube (which became infinitely more interesting when George Clinton got involved); his collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto, Field Work and Puppet Theatre, his own version of the song he wrote for rap duo Whodini, Magic's Wand.

When the The Flat Earth works, it is something of a minor masterpiece. When it fails, it still has enough invention and élan to carry it off. 25 years later, I wholeheartedly stand by it.

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