Moby (Richard Hall) is a hard guy to figure out. Over the course of his career, he has followed a variety of different musical muses and professed a range of beliefs. He says he's a follower of Christ and often writes songs that indirectly praise God, yet he doesn't consider himself a Christian. He followed up 1995's brilliant Everything Is Wrong, one of the most eclectic dance records ever made, with albums of dull ambient techno (recorded under the pseudonym Voodoo Child) and self-indulgent hardcore punk (Animal Rights). He announced he was producing the next Guns N' Roses album, but then reneged on Axl to devote time to his own work, deciding he wasn't going to produce anyone's records. He says he's vegan and doesn't drink alcohol, but he has been spotted partying with stripper types in Manhattan bars. He professes to not like film scores much, then released an album of film music titled I Like to Score.
The contradictions are endless, and Moby's live shows, depending on how much he sings and plays guitar (neither of which he does particularly well), are generally uneven affairs. In the early '90s, when he was strictly DJing (something he no longer does), Moby stood head and shoulders above other electronic acts. Never stationary or hunched over his gear in feigned anonymity, Moby would climb atop his rack of equipment and spin, stage-diving from speakers and waving his arms in the air like a raving minister. These days, he's more in control and concerned with performing as part of a "band," switching from percussion to guitars to keyboards. He has even been known to play a dreadful song that he introduces as "the first song I ever wrote." Yet his latest album, Play, suggests Moby can still drop a good beat.
Borrowing from the famous field recordings of blues singers made by Alan Lomax in the first half of the 20th century, the songs on Play aren't as consistently engaging as those on Everything Is Wrong, but they're better than anything else Moby has recorded since then. For the most part, Play is a somber, reflective effort, which demonstrates that Moby, unlike most DJs, knows how to inflect electronic music with emotion. On "Find My Baby," he pairs a raspy refrain with pulsating breakbeats, driving guitars, and piano and string arrangements. Given Moby's religious beliefs, it's hard not to read elements of doubt and misgiving into songs like "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad," "If Things Were Perfect," and "Natural Blues." Although "Bodyrock," a track produced by Mario Caldato Jr. (Beastie Boys), caters too much to the big-beat crowd, and "Porcelain," a breakup ballad that finds Moby singing about dying in his dreams, is filled with clichés like, "I never meant to hurt you," Play is still good enough to be called a return to form.
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