For a man with an intriguingly eccentric career path, Play was manna from Heaven. Not only did it sound interesting in a chilled-out, accessible way, with its vintage gospel samples and early ’90s house piano riffs, but the world of advertising loved it and stuck its various tracks all over TV and radio from here to Hullabaloo.
So the follow-up, 18, could have gone two ways. It could have wandered off down another interesting little path of inexactitude, experimenting for experiments’ sake. Or, Moby might actually like being a huge, arena-playing star with over 10 million album sales to his name and opt for replication rather than revolution.
On the surface, and happily for advertising gurus and his label’s new owner EMI, he seems to stick to a conservative, almost formulaic format for 18, so called as it contains 18 tracks. But as usual he hires in a whole clutch of live and sampled vocalists – including gospel damsels familiar from the archives raided for Play. These tracks do indeed sound like Play Part 2.
But there are pieces of tunes here which sound truly promising, but then tail off into plodding, bland loops, repetition and insignificance, such as At Least We Tried. They start a vibe that makes you happy to be listening to them and then… drone on. Harbour is another case in point, featuring the wonderful and unmistakable vocals of Sinead O’Connor. It grabs you at the start and then lets you fall to the ground as the minutes drag by. Look Back In is another one of those gospel sampled tracks which, on Play, sounded original, but now sound wearing.
Yet he has clearly been happy to develop his music to suit his audience, and however much this might compromise him as an artist, the inescapable truth is that a) he likes it, b) millions of people buy it and c) it’s actually rather good, even if it isn’t as fresh second time round.
The excellent first single and opening track We Are All Made Of Stars is one of very few tracks on 18 that doesn’t sound at home in a chill-out room. Moby himself performs vocal duties on this and impertinently covers the ’70s rhythm with lead guitar, to enlivening and catchy effect. Elsewhere, on Extreme Way’, a thumping bassline and repetitive, catchy chorus bear all the hallmarks of latter-day Mobyness.
Commercial it may be, but why knock success? Moby has won it the hard way and should be allowed time to enjoy it. But if the next album after 18 is more of the same, we’ll know we have a music-by-numbers man with us, rather than the exceptional artist we’d hoped for.