Play Nicely

He may be a bald, vegan, gospel-loving peacenik, but ask him the wrong question and Moby turns into one combative little dude. Witness:

Me: So, new record, new songs, new live show. What can we expect this time out?

Moby: Well, when I make the records it's just me in my studio, but when I tour, now I have about 11 people onstage. So as far as shows go, it's pretty elaborate.

Me: Having done both in your life, would you say it comes more from a sort of rock perspective or an electronic-music perspective?

Moby: I don't know. I mean, it's just a show. When I put on a concert, I try to put on something that's as passionate and entertaining as I can make it. I'm not really thinking in terms of what genre it represents or what live tradition it's coming from. It's more just me trying to put on something that I would want to see if I were in the audience.

Me: Well, yeah, sure. But you're familiar with this idea that there are rock bands who play rock concerts and there are electronic artists who perform behind laptops, and that maybe you fit somewhere in between.

Moby: Um, I don't know. To be honest with you, I don't really feel too connected with that debate.

Who expected this? 18, Moby's new album, might be this year's most yoga-tastic listen, a totally centered work of chilled beats, Cream of Wheat sonics and vocals that either ooze inner peace or prove that expensive recording equipment can make anyone sound that way. Like its gazillion-selling predecessor Play, 18 is New Age with new shoes, the kind of thing you'd be embarrassed to listen to if it didn't keep giving you goosebumps.

And it does, doesn't it? "In This World," 18's rewrite of Play's hit single "Honey," is terrifically effective stuff, an electro-gospel mover that really does sound like the past and the future catching up with each other, the midtempo canned beat sidling right up to the august canned vocal and just shuffling on into your cerebral cortex. "Great Escape" hits the spot, too, a naked sheet of fake strings and brittle harmony vocals by the two women of Azure Ray, a little indie band Moby plucked from obscurity, that creeps up on you like a sunrise through heavy fog. Even when Moby elects to rock the mike, it's better than it should be: "Signs of Love" is a killer Achtung Baby pastiche, Moby figuring that even if he can't hit those high-ass Bono notes, most people can't either, so what the hell? Lead single "We Are All Made of Stars" takes it back to Bono's source code, unspooling a spaced-out R&B shimmy over a robotic thump that's all Berlin-era Bowie. The album is a more unified emotional statement than Play, and there's more to hold onto in it for a post-September 11 audience looking for musical comfort food. But it's also a bit of a letdown for those who heard in Play an exciting new structural template, a refreshing way to make records that slid between the lines separating those genres Moby seems to have so much trouble recognizing; apart from "Stars," 18 mostly recycles whatever advances in craft he made on Play.

"At the end of the day what I'm trying to do is make records and make songs that will reach people on an emotional level," he admits when I ask him about the balance between craft and content. "I'm trying to make cohesive albums that are comprised of songs that will reach people on an emotional level. That's the sum total of my life's work, as far as I'm concerned. And it doesn't really matter to me how I make these records; it just matters to me how someone who's listening to the record is reacting to it."

On one hand, it's an admirable goal, and certainly when you consider 18's successes and how much Moby's done for putting a human face on electronica's digital sheen. Yet as often as his records feel like jobs well done, they also leave you wanting something more. After all, Play took mainstream the idea of a guy making records alone in his bedroom (ones that didn't sound like Sebadoh, anyway), and that took a keen sense of invention, intentional or no. And Moby's partners in emo-electronica have succeeded in improving their technique while keeping their hearts sewn to their sleeves--DJ Shadow's new one does it, Björk's always done it, even Bowie's still sort of doing it. Working in his quiet Manhattan apartment in the dead of night, Moby must get the urge to break out of his shell, right? Try out some crazy shit the sampler manual doesn't even endorse?

"Like I said, at the end of the day it doesn't really matter to me how anyone makes records. The only thing that really matters to me, and the only reason that I'm involved in the music business, is the relationship that an individual has to the music that they're listening to out of two speakers. Or five speakers, as the case might be. Everything else to me is arbitrary and ancillary."

I start to try again, but Moby stops me. "I have to say, with this line of questioning, you're just gonna get bored. I go into my studio, and I make music."

Dissed by a pop star who's caught the ear of the world making hugely successful records about confronting the world--Moby and I share more in common than I thought.