This one should really be entitled “what I dun on me Summer Holidays”, given that this album is released in the aftermath of one of the strangest and most involving marketing campaigns that I can remember. Eschewing the usual “hello, buy my new thing” standard method of selling stuff, Thomas Morgan Dolby Robertson assembled a crack team of writers, artists and game designers to come up with a mysterious world set in an alternate, dystopian reality where nobody knew what was going on, and players around the world were divided into 9 Tribes on three continents and given instructions to trade, ally, invent, scheme and generally caper our way to the centre of the map in order to find the Floating City, with clues hidden in (and on) EPs and an iPhone game as if that wasn’t enough to start with.
Of course it all got a bit competitive, and probably somewhat predictably given a couple of the tasks we were set along the way (which involved much creative writing, editing and opinionating well into the tiny wee hours during a couple of weekends/schoolnights), it all went a bit mad. Strops were thrown, arguments were fermented and (most importantly) friendships were cemented during a particularly memorable night where a character’s trial went completely and spectacularly mad and the players got very angry indeed. Oddly enough, this added to the game immeasurably, bringing people together first in a sense of outrage, closely followed by general militant bemusement. And nobody did militant bemusement quite like the mostly-British (let’s see if I get this right) Muluberry ClubBloc Seaboard, a coming-together of several of the game’s tribes who joined forces for that most noble of reasons, “well, it seemed like a good idea at the time”.
Of course, if you hadn’t spent most of this summer playing along, none of this will make sense. The game was made up of pretty much everything from Thomas Dolby’s lengthy CV, creating a world from his songtitles and lyrics, making tradeable items from subjects and objects from the same, and steering everything towards this new venture. Indeed, this album is musically split Crystal Maze-like into the same three continents as the game; Urbanoia, Amerikana and Oceanea.
So, after twenty years away, why now? I suspect he may not need the money (1993 saw him establishing a company that very successfully came up with software synthesizers for use in cellphones), and the allure of fame and its saucy trappings mustn’t seem quite so important as the years start to pile up. The answer seems to come from the very first track Nothing New Under The Sun, where “Suddenly a tune – a bolt from the blue – music is in love with you” describes the joy in being inspired to write a song, so it’s probably safe to assume that this rather huge multimedia venture has sprung from the sheer pleasure gained from just doing it.
Each of the three sections have their own character. The Urbanoia chapter concerns itself with creating the feeling of being citybound, although not necessarily Western as the Middle-Eastern rave of Spice Train (with its refrain of “From Bahrain to Brixton”) and Regina Spektor’s Russian Waitress during Evil Twin Brother will attest to. Amerikana wears its roots proudly, even if the deliciously silly Toad Lickers sets its Bluegrass stall out in Wales. The finest songs for me are held over until the final chapter Oceanea however, where Thomas comes across as feeling utterly at home amongst the (mostly) calm waters of the final three songs, probably not that surprising given that this was all mostly recorded aboard The Nutmeg of Consolation, a lifeboat converted to a renewable energy-powered studio.
Even without the attendant multimedia addons that still make me sit up like a meerkat whenever a tradeable item gets mentioned in the lyrics (“ooh, a seagull!” etc), this is a supremely curious album. Being streets ahead of the field back in the 1980s and early 1990s set Dolby apart from his peers back then, and reappearing as someone probably best-known to a contemporary audience as someone featured in the Grand Theft Auto III soundtrack, he occupies this musical area where he uses his past styles to move his new work forward, and the end product is very welcome, none more so than in album closer To The Lifeboats, where the ever-cheering effect of unexpected swearing in a quiet song gives way to a boisterous middle section that would fit right in during the best moments of The Golden Age Of Wireless, providing in a nutshell the appeal of A Map Of The Floating City.
Just as with his peaks a generation ago, the scientific pulp fiction worlds that Thomas Dolby created are here in force; romantic, clever and occasionally absurd. It’s great to have him back. Now – does anyone have any spare Honey they want to swap for some Carkeys?