You might not be able to tell if a song is by Moby just from the voice or musical style, but it’s pretty difficult not to notice that four-chord arrangement he uses all the goddamn time for ambient tinkle and career-killing thrash alike. Those four chords are his great, grand, sweeping, all-encompassing gesture of faith—a simultaneous bid for nobility and offering of fealty to the Muse of his choice, a bridge across nations and subcultures, a constant in an ever-rotating sea of instruments and genres. After a while it’s impossible even for fans not to roll their eyes—those changes may be heartfelt, but that probably makes them cornier, not less corny, and all the more effective when they work.
Something similar applies to his albums, which have used the same basic ingredients for a decade now: moody alternating with mournful alternating with ecstatic, his own brooding voice spelling some (usually) tremulous, semi-anonymous woman’s, Philip Glass and Steve Reich swapping keyboard duties with Derrick May and Jo Bogaert (that’d be Technotronic, kids), jackhammer drums trading off with thunderstorm pitter-pat and oceanic ripple. The main difference between Play and what preceded it was less feeling than speed: For the first time on a “real” Moby album (excluding ambient side projects and Instinct Records cobble-togethers), all the songs ran at basically the same tempo, which made it easier for stay-at-homes to divine what wide-eared ecstatics had always known about the guy’s gift for isolating holy-fuck sonic serotonin attacks into hooks. Declaring Play better than Move or Everything Is Wrong is just another way of saying gospel vocals are easier on the ear than screaming divas and ragamuffin toasters—of privileging Sunday morning over Saturday night.
That changing of the same is what kept Moby’s music fresh; he didn’t have to keep moving mountains with the same set of hands, keep building steam with the same grain of salt. But those chords have come to sound oppressive rather than hymnlike. 18 is the first Moby album to resemble its predecessor not only stylistically but structurally as well: He might as well have called it Replay. Nearly every song sounds like either a redux of or reject from its predecessor, and it’s no surprise that he leads with a rewrite of Play‘s biggest hit. The mumbly verse, quasi-anthemic hook, and glam guitar of “South Side” doppelgänger “We Are All Made of Stars” do grow on you after a while. But Moby sounds like he’s straining for buttons he used to push seemingly by accident; by the time the final choruses gain the synth-pad swell of those four inevitable chords, I begin counting down to the inevitable P!nk remix.
If it seems odd to complain about the cunning of someone who’s sold 10 million albums on the back of 300 ad campaigns, let me be clear: The problem with 18 is that it’s not manipulative enough. Even the alt.quiet.mixes of yore had the pouty insistence of a nine-year-old being sent to bed early, and the naked petulance of Animal Rights pissed as many people off as did its raging buzzsaw attacks. Play may have made ace background music for the nail salon or sports car or blockbuster sequel of your choice, but it was out a full year before it got popular—it represented a consolidation, not a capitulation.
Now the marketplace will come to him, for a while at least. But the personality that fired his previous work seems to be eroding on 18—or worse, devolving into pure mannerism, the first step, as Rod Stewart and L.L. Cool J have taught us, toward an irretrievable decline into schlock. There’s the cloying “At Least We Tried,” the background theme of the tender morning-after scene of your chick-flick nightmares. (You know—the scene where the guy wins your heart by confessing all his sins, and then won’t shut up.) There’s Angie Stone’s icky little “One thing’s fa’ sho’, Moby got soul” at the top of “Bodyrock” ringer “Jam for the Ladies,” which I always thought he did too until I heard that line. There are those tedious Azure Ray and Sinéad O’Connor guest spots. And there is the fact that “In This World”—one of the few good songs here—hinges on yet another “lordy.” Enough with the “lordy” already, Moby!
It doesn’t seem like an accident that the album’s highest moments come when words are bypassed altogether but vocals are not. Jennifer Price’s desperate gospel vowels at the top of “In This World” ‘s third verse make the dangling carrot jump from here to there as effectively as anything Moby has ever done. The hook of “In My Heart” is both subtler and more sensational: an unidentified member of the Shining Light Gospel Choir’s earth-rattling eee‘s and ooohhh‘s broadening as much as rising, while Moby counters with the album’s boldest dynamic strokes. And “The Rafters” hinges on some huzzahing hmmm‘s. Buried near the end of an album that kept making me check my watch, it’s the closest Moby’s come in years to his carefree early Instinct releases, back when those four chords still spelled release rather than the stylistic trap you might fear he’s stuck in forever. It also has a real sense of play, not Play. But otherwise, though he may have discovered the universal panacea, he sounds like he’s lost his faith. Help him, lordy.