Blues for Jesus

The last time we heard from maverick musician Moby, the former rave DJ was trying to discover his inner head-banger on 1997's Animal Rights, a self- indulgent cacophony of introspective metal and angst-ridden punk that managed to turn away many of his original followers, your present critic included.

This time around on Play, the sensitive Christian from Connecticut—he's been known to burst into tears at the sound of his own music—returns to the contemporary dance floor, but via a circuitous historical route involving abundant blues and gospel samples taken from field recordings made by Alan Lomax in the '20s, '30s, and '40s. What results is a perfect blend of sacred and secular—exactly what Moby's been looking for all along.

Moby started out promisingly enough in the early '90s, with "Go"—his kinetic take on the theme from Twin Peaks—and in 1995 delivered a fine, if unfocused, major-label debut album (replete with eco-friendly essays), Everything Is Wrong. But somewhere along the way, he got mired down in gauche pretension and rock-star posturing. He wanted to be techno's first superstar—a skinny global missionary for his peculiarly muscular blend of Jesus worship and terpsichorean hedonism. (He once claimed history's first rave happened when the Ark of the Covenant entered Jerusalem and was greeted by frenzied dancing.) An alcohol- and drug-free vegetarian who subscribes to the Utne Reader and serves as president of his Mott Street co-op board, Moby wound up sounding like a pious propagandist for the clean- living lifestyle politics of the soft left.

Play begins simply enough, with its first single, "Honey," which deliberately invokes B.D.P.'s Bronx classic "The Bridge Is Over." A simple booming piano figure underpins an endlessly repeating female chant: "You'd better hop in the back. I'm coming over, yeah." The unadorned foundation—stripped-down hip-hop meets infinite mechanical blues—gradually builds into a mesmerizing floor-filler, arousing memories of Hamilton Bohannon's hypnotic '70s metronome funk. The song's sexual urgency feels like earthy awakening, especially when you grasp that Moby is sampling a woman saying she's going to fuck some other guy across town now that her boyfriend's away.

All those Lightning Slim 45s Moby's mom used to play when he was a kid obviously had an impact. There's something about the grain and incantatory power of these primitively recorded voices that, when juxtaposed against state-of-the-art soundscapes, gives the album its emotional charge. Listen to weary but hopeful '40s gospel singer Vera Hall in "Natural Blues," jerking our tears over a pounding honky-tonk piano: "Ooh, Lawdy, troubles so hard/Don't nobody know my troubles with God." Wouldn't sound out of place at the old Paradise Garage, a dancehall where space-age Baptists regularly congregated in the '80s. Play's quirky "Run On" even features the Landfordaires harmonizing on a "gonna reap what you sow" sermon to wayward Christians who come to church only to pick up other men's wives.

Moby, who wrote all the songs and played all the instruments himself, also sings on several tracks, usually with a naive vulnerability. Even his post apocalyptic "South Side"—"Weapon in hand as we go for a ride"—sounds sunny. (Gwen Stefani originally sang lead vocals on the track, but Moby preferred his own voice. He was also supposed to collaborate with Jewel on the unassuming acoustic track "Everlasting," but her record company balked.) The abrasive minisymphony "Machete" finds Moby screaming at the top of his lungs; weirdly, it's the only really uptempo track on the record, give or take "Body Rock," where Spoonie Gee's rap flow meets the Gang of Four's guitar sound.

Interspersed with the songs are a half-dozen moody, downbeat instrumentals. "Rushing" is a hopelessly romantic piano interlude—the Art of Noise imitating Liberace over a lazy hip-hop breakbeat. And the slow crawl of "Seven" evokes Downtown's desolate late-night atmosphere of the '80s, when the teenage Moby first danced to the new wave funk of Bush Tetras and E.S.G. at the Mudd Club.

The album starts to fizzle out toward the end, with a couple of dread-laden tone poems about bad weather. But Moby regains his footing for the grand finale, the majestic "My Weakness"—a hymnlike track that places a sample from an African church service against ethereal synthesizers. Once touched in the head, now touched by an angel, the holy idiot Moby has finally come up with the religious masterpiece he's threatened to make since the beginning. Play should not only rehabilitate his reputation among electronic music fans (at least the nonpurists); it should also ensure that when Moby finally meets his maker, God will give him the job he's always wanted—resident DJ in heaven's celestial disco.

 
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