By: Japanese Corespondent- Patrick Doherty
Moby's history of alienating his splintered fan-base is notorious. His 1995 release, Everything Is Wrong, with its orchestral and moody overtones, turned off legions of glow-stick waving fans of "Moby the DJ." Everything Is Wrong fans didn't have to wait long to be brushed off, either. Animal Rights introduced us to "Moby the Punker" in 1996, who, in turn, became "Moby the Electro-Pop-Soul-Sampler" with the release of Play in 1999. Of the few Moby fans that remain from the 1991 release, Go, only a fraction of them can actually claim to have embraced all of Moby's musical masks over the past decade.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Moby's latest release, 18, doesn't sound like Play, or for that matter anything else he has ever released. Some of the tracks do have similar beats and chord progressions, tying 18 to Play on a level that only an audiophile would appreciate, but fans who caught "Southside" on the radio and then hopped on the Moby bandwagon are going to be confused. But that's par for the course because Moby continues to do on 18 what he's always done best, and that is to fuse disparate musical styles with a pop sensibility, while maintaining a moody, almost gothic theme. This is a tough trick and pony show, which is what makes Moby such a polarizing artist, despite the fact that his music, at its heart, is simplistic and rather indulgent. This also probably explains why Moby keeps switching genres. What would have happened if Moby had released Play, Part Deaux? The same thing that would have happened had someone else released a Play-like album: they'd both be dismissed as dull and repetitive hacks. Give Moby credit for knowing when he's worn out a genre's welcome, I guess. This time his welcome mat is decorated with the musical theme du jour, minimal electronic pop and glitch.
It should be obvious after reading that sentence that the first commercial radio single off 18, "We Are All Made Of Stars", is an anomaly because nothing else on the album sounds even remotely like it. The distant and somewhat flaccid mood of that single is replicated throughout 18, but guitarwork, for the most part, is noticeably absent from this Moby release, perhaps, for the first time since Moby first started to focus on his DJ-ing skills. This advance single is as close as you will get to rock music on 18, and, maybe, that's for the better because after listening to this song's desperately simple lyrics, melody, and harmony, it could have gotten ugly really fast. It's as if Mute begged Moby for just one song that would make even yuppies feel like they were hip- the rest of the album be damned.
On 18 Moby stays committed to plundering old soul and gospel records, sampling to his heart's content- sometimes to the point that the samples seem to be running the show, leaving his beats hanging in the balance. In particular, tracks like "One Of These Mornings," "Another Woman," "I'm Not Worried At All," "The Rafters" and "At Least We Tried" all feature the sampled artists more than Moby's own musical musings. The beats, chords and progressions on several of these songs match up almost perfectly, suggesting that Moby either knows when he's hit on a good idea or is simply willing to let the samples do the talking. Lazy or genius? Some may rightly suggest this detracts from Moby's status as a "musician," and there's nothing wrong with that argument. But that doesn't take away from the power of the music itself, sampled or not, and Moby can take all the credit he wants for exposing gospel to his celebrity friends as well as millions of other lowly earthlings with worthless musical taste. Let's just hope he's shelling out the royalties.
When leaving the world of sampled gospel, Moby turns inward on 18, and you are more likely than not to be left in a morass of music that can best be described as "ambient", and, at worst, as "new age schlock." As a point of reference, the second half of Play exposes Moby's electronic soul-searching side. There are no overarching beats; instead Moby conjures up more of a gray mood with an occasional dalliance with traditional pop progressions. 18 is neither as daring nor as bold as Bjork's Vespertine; nor is it even remotely as good. But like Bjork, Moby is flirting with the idea of a modern world of pop minimalism, and he gets some good traction in a few spots, most notably on "Look Back In" and "Fireworks", where the tension actually starts to meet the dark matter absence of sound.
Not being much of a crooner himself, Moby has wisely passed the microphone to some of his friends on a few tracks, the most successful of which is "Harbour", featuring Sinead O'Connor. "Harbour" is the ultimate showcase for O'Connor's relentlessly powerful voice. Minor keys combine with an upbeat tempo while O'Connor sings of loss and regret, instantly recalling her seminal early work on The Lion And The Cobra from 1987. She sounds so much better on 18 than she has in years, prompting the notion that she should immediately stop writing her own music, fire her studio band, and hire Moby to do it all for her because, Lord knows, she hasn't released a decent album in well over a decade. The few other guest spots don't quite fare as well. "Jam For The Ladies," featuring the legendary (?) MC Lyte, had the potential to be an ironic track poking fun at misogynistic rap, but the reality is that it's too over-the-top to be parody. Instead, it insults hip-hop in a way that really is quite sad. This track is utterly regrettable. Azure Ray on "The Great Escape" sounds good, but the song is short and uninteresting and formulaic.
A couple moody instrumentals are thrown in for good measure, and Moby does try his hand at singing in a couple spots, although, it only really works on "Sleep Alone," which also happens to be the only time Moby's lyrics climb out of the realm of the emotionally distant. Here, at least, Moby appears as his old, self-conscious self, which was one of the few endearing qualities of Play. His distance on 18 may be the greatest threat to its appeal, because without the vulnerability of tracks like "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad," Moby is left as a rather shallow emotional charicature.
18 showcases everything that is good and bad about Moby. As a musician with masterful control of instrumentation and a sequencer for a brain, he is the prototype 21st century pop musician. He draws out the best of the music that surrounds him at the moment, regardless of the fact that it makes him look like a vampire or a whore, pillaging and exploiting music that isn't his. His music is, of course, uncomplicated and corny, if not altogether self-indulgent. However, now that he's a mainstream crossover, it's easiest just to lump him into the frivolous pop camp. That way his crimes are less magnified because nobody takes pop musicians seriously anymore. Simplistic you say? Derivative? Stealing music from black artists? Well, that's what started rock and roll, is it not? Nobody is comparing Moby to the Beatles, but his contribution (good or bad) to the lexicon of pop cannot be denied after Play. Whether he can maintain that level of exposure and influence remains to be seen, but 18 certainly doesn't seal the deal.