Moby called an early album Everything Is Wrong, but with the release of Play three years ago, everything began to go shockingly right. Now, for the first time in his decade-plus-long career, he finds himself faced with public expectations, and he’s savvy enough not to fix something that isn’t even remotely broken. On 18, he returns to what made Play work. Once again, he takes voices both new and vintage and loops them over fertile electronic arrangements that start sparely and blossom, growing richer and brighter with each repetition. He even samples another track by the Shining Light Gospel Choir — heard on Play’s ”Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” — for the celestial dance-gospel rave of ”In My Heart.”
It’s a formula, but damn if it isn’t still effective. People can gripe all they want about the countless licensing deals he made with Play, but no one concocts the same streaming, dawn-is-breaking soundscapes. The moment when Jennifer Price diva-shouts ”Lordy, don’t leave me/All by myself” over a Moby track on 18’s ”In This World” is as intensely emotional as pop gets right now.
At the same time, Moby is astute enough to throw in new ingredients to liven matters up, like a DJ who revives a crowd’s collective flagging spirits with a new jam at three in the morning. 18 turns to relatively contemporary samples — forgotten tracks from ’70s R&B singers that make the album feel more organic and modern than its predecessor. ”Sunday (The Day Before My Birthday)” takes a feathery snippet from an old Sylvia single and wrings a new sense of melancholy from it. The funky, blaxploitation-movie swirl of ”Another Woman,” its vocal lifted from an old Lynn Collins record, is unlike anything on Play.
But this is a minor alteration compared with the larger one at work on 18 (named, in part, after the number of songs on it). At its core, Play had a jubilant soul, but 18 is one sad work. Whether sampled or newly sung (by himself and a cast of outside characters), the voices seem to be perpetually in mourning, and they’re set to music that, while still animated, is slower, more contemplative. If the aptly named Play was like a gospel sermon reinvented for the technology age, the new album is like a midnight mass of regret.
It’s everywhere you turn, from the New York R&B singer Freedom Bremner’s sweet sorrow on ”At Least We Tried” to hushed ballads and disconsolate words sung by Sinead O’Connor and the female duo Azure Ray. (It’s telling that the older vocal samples are more passionate than the ones freshly recorded for this project.) The slide guitars of Play are gone; this time, blippy keyboards dominate. Moby himself steps up to the mic more than he ever has before, and his voice, always an opaque instrument, is like a numb, dispassionate pronouncement of things gone wrong. In one of the record’s most subtly powerful moments, ”Sleep Alone,” two ghosts fly through a city while holding hands; ”Extreme Ways” appears to be a salute to, and requiem for, youthful nightlife. With its recurring images of heartbreak, finales, and remorse, 18 may be the ultimate, if unintentional, post-Sept. 11 work.
18 demonstrates how Moby doesn’t make albums so much as modern symphonies. The songs stand apart, but they also bleed easily into one another. At a time when every DJ worth his velvet rope is making an album with multiple singers, Moby is one of the few who can make such a collection sound cohesive; no matter who’s vocalizing, you always know you’re listening to a Moby production.
With 18, you also know you’re listening to a sequel. There’s no denying that some of the freshness of Play is gone, that the corny hip-hop of ”Jam to the Ladies” is a little too much like ”Bodyrock,” that a few of the instrumental backings are reminiscent of those he placed behind the old African-American voices on Play. Personally, I don’t mind. 18 is a soundtrack for lives and dreams that collapse and are gradually rebuilt, albeit with a heavy heart. It’s called hope, and no matter the circumstances, there’s never enough of it to go around. A-