When we chatted last fall, Thomas Dolby said he was happy he'd taken a couple of decades off -- not only because he made a mint with his own Silicon Valley start-up, but because he managed to avoid the sad fate of his synth-pop peers, who spent the '90s and beyond slumping around the country on ramshackle '80s package tours. "I know some of my contemporaries from that period have been out there sort of doing the rounds, doing the rewind tours and the Vegas stints and things like that," he said. "I wouldn't touch that with a 10-foot pole."
There's a wee bit of Vegas in his act, nonetheless.
Dolby is out now on his first proper band tour in ages. Upon his full-time return to music, the innovative pop star ("She Blinded Me With Science") toured a few years ago as a one-man, semi-cybernetic act, then made the rounds last year presenting performative lectures about his new online video game, "The Floating City." Now he's back with a band -- well, a guitarist and drummer -- and a catalog of all those hits that in the '80s sounded so futuristic and now sound, well, perfectly normal.
Dolby didn't mean to sound so bloody whizz-bang back in the day, anyway. He was just a songwriter who happened to dabble in the instruments of his era. "It was really quite contrarian to use synths, and only a handful of us were stupid enough to try it," he said. "I was an individual; it just happened that my palette was electronic." In 2012, judging by his new album ("Map of the Floating City") and Thursday night's performance at Chicago's Park West, the times have caught up with him, to a degree. He's simply a solid songwriter whose sonic palette isn't so golly-gee distracting now.
With songs old and new often back-to-back in the set list, Dolby's material stands on its own among the finer masters of storytelling songcraft, from the Brill Building folks through mildly humorous narrative aces like Paul Williams or Tom T. Hall. That he came of age while David Bowie was turning our eyes and ears toward stardust and Mars is the chief reason a moody World War II reverie like Dolby's "One of Our Submarines" winds up still sounding so upbeat and 21st-century. Squint beyond the laser lights, though, as well as Dolby's formidable synthesizer and sequencer rig, and you'll find the muddy swamp boogie underneath "I Love You, Goodbye," the calypso rhythms fortifying "The Flat Earth," all the Billie Holiday references in "Love Is a Loaded Pistol" and other purely earthbound pleasures. He has the greatest successes in these personal inspirations, less so when performing stylistic mash-ups such as the wobbly balance of GarageBand beats and Welsh country fiddle in "The Toad Lickers."
But even that seems as if Dolby is overcompensating for his futuristic image, trying hard to keep his roots planted in something effable, colloquial, 20th-century. Even his futurism has gone retro; the Time Capsule he's carting around on this tour (a small trailer in which fans can sit and leave a 30-second video message "for the future") is a richly steampunk relic. He certainly doesn't put on robotic airs -- Thursday night he was all purple blazer, hipster hat cool, occasionally grabbing the mike and stepping away from the keys in order to shake a hip or two and bite his lower lip, which given his Dick Clark-esque apparent defiance of aging he actually pulls off. He's the inverse of Vic Fontaine ("Star Trek: Deep Space Nine") -- rather than a mere throwback vision of the past amid a sci-fi world, Dolby is a plugged-in singer trying to maintain a grasp on his original era as he moves forward. Here's hoping that attempt doesn't pull him apart during his next creative decade.
Thomas Dolby's Thursday night set list:
"One of Our Submarines"
"The Flat Earth"
"Evil Twin Brother"
"Love Is a Loaded Pistol"
"My Brain Is Like a Sieve"
"Road to Reno"
"The Toad Lickers"
"I Love You, Goodbye"
"She Blinded Me With Science"