I don’t think I’m ever going to understand Moby.
He is, as I’ve said before, the unlikeliest of superstars – tiny, well-read, articulate and gentle, the very antithesis of the modern celebrity. In a pop music world built on bravado and vulgarity, Moby has crafted an odd little career out of thoughtfulness and borderline timidity. It’s strange to think that at one time, he was controversial for including pictures of himself on the covers of his techno/mix albums, because if there’s one thing you can’t accuse Moby of, it’s an excess of personality.
Musically, his career can be evenly divided. In the early ‘90s, he made blissful techno and ambient chill-out music, scoring club hits with his reworkings of themes from James Bond movies and Twin Peaks. He proved his ambitions with Everything is Wrong, his spectacular major-label full-length debut, in 1995. I’m always in favor of records that smash boundaries, and this one set fire to them, placing raves, punk freak-outs and pulsing ambient pieces right next to each other and watching them fight it out. He followed it up with the horrible, guitar-drenched Animal Rights, but we can forgive that.
And then he developed a pretty cool trick – he cast old soul songs in new settings on 1999’s Play, adding a depth and spirituality to his work that he’d only hinted at before. Play was a trip, but over time, the non-sampled tracks (like the I-can’t-believe-it-was-a-hit atrocity “South Side”) wore thinner than Moby’s voice. Play was roughly one-third sampled soul updates, one-third ambient instrumentals, and one-third bland vocal tracks with amateur hour lyrics.
That balance worked for millions of people, though, because Play stayed on the pop charts for two years, spun off countless singles and commercial spots, and still probably brings in a check each month for its author. Oh, and the album’s popularity has all but obliterated the second half of Moby’s career – His Timidness has been seemingly frightened of messing with a successful formula. For the past five years, he’s made nothing but clones of Play – its follow-up, 18, was exactly the same, as were the two collections of b-sides. I got so tired of waiting for him to break new ground that I even lapped up Baby Monkey, his album of ambient tracks under the name Voodoo Child, even though it sounded just like his pre-Everything is Wrong material.
Given six years and four discs of sameness, you would think that Hotel, his just-released 12th collection, would be cause for celebration. Moby has chucked the sampler, plugged in the guitar and made a record of pop songs, something he’s never done before. He’s finally loosed the Play albatross from around his neck and started fresh. I would give him credit for his boldness, if he weren’t doing it as a response to years of diminishing returns.
And for a while there, Hotel will make you think he’s made a good choice. It kicks off with the most interesting four-song stretch he’s produced since Play – the piano-pounding “Raining Again” is memorable and melodic, “Beautiful” makes great use of those fully integrated guitars, first single “Lift Me Up” is a kind of low-key powerhouse, and “Where You End” is an engaging stomper. These songs are so un-Moby-like that one can forgive his shaky vocals and his moon-june-spoon lyrics. Just listen to the “la-la-la” refrain intertwining with the nifty guitar work on “Lift Me Up.” This is the finest work Moby has released under his own name in ages.
And then… well, he gives us a limp cover of New Order’s “Temptation,” sung by Laura Dawn, and it’s a momentum killer. After that, the album dies a slow, twitching death, like a fish caught on dry land. He never switches styles – the rest of the album is varying degrees of pop, all with vocals, except the closing synth instrumental. It’s just that he runs out of melodies, and tracks 7-13 are boring and forgettable, when they’re not laughable. The thing about Moby’s music is that it’s all on the surface – if you don’t hear something engaging on first or second listen, then repeated dives through are not going to help. There’s nothing else there.
Two things hamper this record even more than the lack of interesting songs in the second half, and I’ve already touched on them both. The first is Moby’s voice, which is wavery and weak, as always. Fair play to him for stepping out and singing so many songs on Hotel, but unlike Animal Rights (his other big vocal foray), the rest of this album is so clear and well-produced that his off-key moments stand out more prominently. Moby would probably say that his voice adds a human element to his music, and in a way, he’s right, but there are a whole lot of humans with voices that would fit this material better.
But that’s not even a big deal. The most disastrous element of this record is Moby’s lyrics. For most of Hotel’s running time, you’ll think you’re listening to dramatic readings from some seventh grader’s diary. Check this bit from “Love Should,” which sounds like a middle-schooler’s first romantic ballad: “Morning sun is sweet and soft on your eyes, oh my love, you always leave me surprised, before my heart starts to burst with all my love for you…” On “Dream About Me,” he gets this out without laughing: “Tell me no truth if it hurts bad, there’s enough in my life to make me so sad…”
I have to make special mention of “I Like It,” easily the worst song Moby has ever foisted upon the public. It’s four minutes of breathy sex play over a sparse groove that’s probably supposed to sound like Massive Attack, but falls short. The lyrics are basically “I like it, I like it a lot,” repeated in a pseudo-seductive tone that just doesn’t work. It’s embarrassing, and worthy of mockery. Oh, and it sucks, too.
Moby does pull out a late-game near-winner with “Slipping Away,” full of anthemic guitar, but it’s too little, too late. (And even that one suffers because of its lyrics: “Open to everything happy and sad, seeing the good when it’s all going bad…”) The record sputters to a close with “Forever,” a two-chord exercise in lameness, and “Homeward Angel,” a somewhat typical instrumental. The second half was so bad that it made me return to the first few tracks, just to see if they were still all that. (They are.)
The saving grace of this album is its second disc, unimaginatively titled Hotel Ambient. It is exactly as advertised – 68 minutes of blissful chill-out music, the kind you can find on Moby’s earlier records. (Especially the 1993 collection called – what else? – Ambient.) Naturally, this disc on its own won’t get Moby’s face on VH-1 and sell in the millions, so it’s relegated to bonus disc status, when in fact it’s better and more imaginative than the album it accompanies. It’s hard to recommend buying Hotel just for this second disc, although if you do the math, Moby’s given us two hours of music here, and about 80 minutes of it is worthwhile, especially if you like his more ambient work.
I’m just waiting for another album that Moby really likes. Since he hit big with Play, he’s had to worry about sales and singles and videos and big tours, and I’d like to hear a new album under his own name that disregards all those things. There are definitely hits on Hotel, and he’s crafted much of it to appeal to a wider audience, so there’s very little character and personality in evidence. In some ways, I even prefer Animal Rights to his post-Play output, because at least with that album you can tell he was making the music he most wanted to make. Everything since Play has been run through the Bland-O-Matic, and we’re left with Voodoo Child albums and bonus discs if we want to hear the real Moby. Hotel sounds great, and will probably do very well, but very little of the album proper can stand with Moby’s best work.
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I am headed to the east coast for the Easter holiday, and I plan to spend about a week there. I’m telling you this just in case I don’t get a column up in time, although I will try to write and post one while I’m in Massachusetts. Next week sees new ones by Glen Phillips, Beck and Over the Rhine, and after two weeks of disappointment, I’m ready to hear something I love again. Hopefully one of those will fit the bill.
See you in line Tuesday morning.