Think what you like about Moby, but what he says is easy to understand. Anticipating Friday's show at Pop's (Moby appears with superstar DJ Paul Oakenfold), the RFT talked to Moby on the phone, and the guy -- listen up -- is nice.
"When I make music," Moby says, "I'm never trying to be groundbreaking, I'm never trying to be avant-garde; I'm just trying to make beautiful music that I love that other people will love as well."
There's just no arguing with a position like that. It could be printed under his picture in his high-school yearbook. Certainly Moby's new album, 18 (V2), sounds like the product of just such a sentiment, but reviews haven't been wholly positive.
"In all my years of making music and reading reviews of my own records and other people's records," Moby says, "I've never known a CD to get such mixed reviews. Some reviews for 18 have been glowing and over the top, and some have been just disparaging." Why is it that the harshest reviews have come from his fellow New Yorkers? Says Moby, "There are a lot of bitter, nasty journalists, and there are a lot of people who, from my perspective, listen to music from a very arbitrary perspective."
What, New York? He's right, of course -- lots of people exhibit aesthetic territorialism to defend their most prized qualities in art (say, authenticity). But many, many more people listen to music from no perspective whatsoever. Music gets played for them. Naturally -- remember, this guy really is nice -- Moby puts a more positive spin on it.
"One of the nice things about the world of popular music is that at the end of the day it's democratic, and people either like a record or they don't," Moby explains. "Take a band like Creed -- they've never had a good review in their entire lives, but they still manage to sell 12 million records, so there is that disparity between the criteria that some critics use to evaluate records as opposed to the criteria that the general public uses."
Moby's breakthrough album, 1999's Play, received no significant attention until Moby's label began licensing the songs for commercial use. Soon Moby's music was everywhere, and the album became a machine. Really a machine: It proved its utilitarian value, useful in selling cars, shaking a dance floor, relaxing with drinks and probably for mourning lost girlfriends. Wedding gospel to drum machines, Play's best songs sound simultaneously familiar and cutting-edge. More important, people heard the songs a lot, and people like to buy what they know.
18 couldn't have been more highly anticipated -- but what was it people were anticipating? Maybe a bolder experiment in techno, an expectation that neglects Moby's prior experience as a DJ -- a successful experience, but one he is loath to revisit. Asked about his DJ-ing days, Moby says, "I love DJ-ing." (Heck, he loves everything.) "As fun as it can be playing records, getting people to dance, it can be pretty depressing playing music when nobody's listening and there's just a few people sitting at the bar, passed out." Doesn't sound like love.
Asked about his punk-rock days, he recalls "sleeping in the van, or making that hellish seven-hour drive back to Connecticut." These are the statements of a man who's been to the fringe and doesn't want to go back.
"I think people were hoping that 18 would be a big, bombastic, over-the-top statement," Moby remarks, "and instead I wanted to make a record that was kind of personal and quiet. I didn't want to make a self-involved, selfish, petulant record. I just wanted to make a nice, lovely, normal record that was emotional that, hopefully, people would love." There it is again! Historians may debate at length what Moby means by "normal record" (and whether 18 represents it), but there's no mistaking the recurrence of the L-word. Remember, on his 1995 album Everything Is Wrong, Moby bellows, "All -- I -- want -- is -- to -- be -- loved." At the time, we didn't realize he meant "by my audience."
The standard complaint about 18 is that it's Play redux. Much that is familiar is in place: the synthesized strings, the samples of gospel shouts, some piano noodling. And it's friendly -- friendlier, even. Excised are the traces of guitar metal and raver rush. The lush orchestral effects never veer into "A Day in the Life"-type noise. The album's one little rap moment is cleaner than Lil' Bow Wow. Grooving along at a relaxed pace, 18's songs routinely clock in at three minutes, sufficient time to convey hopefulness or wistfulness, the album's recurrent emotional themes. Some of it is mush: "In This World," "Fireworks," and "Look Back In" are rightfully bookmarked by critics who decry Moby's "formula." But gems such as the infectious single "We Are All Made of Stars," "Great Escape," the Portishead-like "Sleep Alone" and the hauntingly hopeful "I'm Not Worried at All" tell the truer story, that Moby's pursuing a style: dreamy, radio- or remix-ready sound collages that probe your emotional buttons. The songs don't seek a target audience, aren't tailored to the dance crowd; instead, they shoot for universal appeal.
So 18 is an experiment in how to sustain pop stardom through, well, the lovely. As of this article's deadline, 18 has been on the Billboard chart for six weeks and has fallen from number four to 44. (Eminem tops the chart, and the execrable Papa Roach debuts at a killer number two.) Is an album of quiet little gems what his audience really wants? In Moby's online journal, at moby.com, the musician speculates that record sales aren't the true indicator of an album's popularity. Referring to "the Pearl Jam effect" in his June 16, 2002, entry, Moby suggests that audiences active in MP3 trading may suppress commercial success and disguise actual popularity.
Good luck with that argument: If Moby's concerned about whether people love him or his music, he ought to remember that people's tastes are composed of a fickle and malleable propensity to like what gets marketed to them, at least as much as by what they might innately desire.
A better measure of Moby's current status will be the crowd's response to his stage show, which features a ten-piece band that seeks to recreate the thrill of Moby's sample-heavy house, as well as the gentle melodrama of his newer songs. If an outdoor crowd at Pop's hangs on those pieces, Moby will surely have achieved his goal. "My hope is that people are entertained and moved and compelled," he says, "and hopefully people come out and just have a really lovely time."
Now, isn't that nice?