[31 May 2005]
Moby is the most peripatetic artist in a traditionally kinetic field, a stalwart ascetist in a realm of sybarites. Few other artists in the field of electronic music have ever experienced the continued success and perpetual recognition that Moby has. No other electronic artist in the US has experienced the same level of public recognition and critical acclaim. In a world where electronic music is often considered a fad or a passing phase, his surprising longevity serves as a constant reminder of the possibilities of the electronic template for the conscientious musician.
But the backlash was inevitable. Coming up from the realms of hardcore punk and early rave shaped Moby’s personality and career in ways which seem almost comically at odds with his reputation as a multi-Platinum recording artist and international celebrity. The fact that Moby actually rose to a high enough profile in the celebrity world to warrant a fued with Eminem adds a tinge of the bizarre: electronic musicians just don’t make very good celebrities, period. When Eminem decided to diss Moby it was about as classy as Mike Tyson fighting a Boy Scout troop.
The electronic music underground that spawned and nurtured Moby’s career doesn’t know what to do with him—those with long memories still don’t know how to take the Dischord-lite punk stylings of 199X’s Human Rights, and there are many who begrudge the crossover success of Play simply because it’s easy enough to do. (Keep in mind that if Play had only sold 50,000 copies instead of a few million, these are the same folks who would have bewailed the fact that such a brilliant record was ignored.) The electronic music community is small and insulated enough that most popular musicians, even comparative superstars like the Chemical Brothers or Orbital or Underworld can remain essentially normal people. Those few DJs to embrace the pose of celebrity—folks like Paul Oakenfold—have seen their credibility disappear as a result.
To his credit, Moby is still as humble and cerebral as he ever was, if a little chastened by the rather traumatic experience of being catapulted to stardom from pleasant obscurity. He still carries himself with the same sincerity (more, perhaps) as any obscure techno or house DJ. If the underground tastemakers don’t have any time for him anymore, well, I don’t think he’s losing any sleep. He released “Go” and spun at raves across the globe when many of today’s popular DJs were still in grade school. He’s toured with New Order and performed with David Bowie. He’s thrown away more career opportunities than most people ever get.
That said, he’s produced two albums that fit roundly into the “stone classic” category—1995’s Everything is Wrong and 1999’s Play—but also released a lot of material that falls somewhere between mediocre and good. Hotel is hardly going to be the album that silences his critics, but despite the overwhelmingly bleak tone it is a necessary step in the right direction after 2002’s slightly underwhelming 18.
Moby’s problem is that, as a songwriter, he has a hard time with quality control. Rather, not to say that he has a trouble with bad songs, but that he records so much that even some of his better songs seem painfully bare. He’s never been one to gussy up his productions merely for the sake of adding ornament. You won’t find the depth of musicality in his work that you would find in the Chemical Brothers’, or the intricacy that served as Orbital’s calling card. Moby’s strengths lie in the simplicity of his melodies and the universality of his sentiment. Whereas most of his peers seem deeply devoted to electronic music as a medium, he remains primarily electronic because it is a tool that enables him the greatest freedom possible—the freedom to do basically whatever he wants from the comfort of his home studio.
18 was a good album marred by a desire to replicate the unreplicable circumstances surrounding the unbelievably popular Play. It had some great moments, particularly the excellent “We Are All Made of Stars”, but as a whole it paled next to it’s esteemed predecessor. Now that he’s got the post-Play album out of his system (what would have been the sophomore slump if Play hadn’t itself been Moby’s fourth or fifth album [depending on how you count]), he’s been given the freedom to fiddle around a bit. He returned to his Voodoo Child alias last year for a good but not great old-school techno album called Baby Monkey. He’s skipped around and done a few different things, including collaborating with Public Enemy and putting together the travelling Area 1 and Area 2 festivals. Hotel is more focused than 18, but suffers a bit for it’s dogged humility and raw emotionalism.
Humility usually isn’t a bad thing, but when it comes to pop albums too much humility can be regrettably torpid. This is an intimate and affecting group of songs, and I imagine many who have the patience will find it an extremely rewarding set. But it lacks the confidence necessary to convey this kind of emotional material over fourteen songs. Conceptually, Hotel lacks the scattershot diversity that made both Everything is Wrong and Play such engrossing roller-coaster rides. It’s certainly represents a far more concentrated application of Moby’s songwriting prowess, but it is also strangely enervated. Where are the punk interludes or the stomping techno numbers or the party cuts that made past Moby albums so gleefully diverse and unfailingly interesting?
Melancholy is the mood, and understated is the tone. Minor-key ballads and sweeping synthesizers are the order of the day, and even the few more rousing pop numbers seem undercut by a surprising restraint. First single “Beautiful” is perhaps the most accessible song on the album, but even this seems somehow less robust than it should be. The sightly glammy guitars are perhaps less restrained than they could be: this is the kind of plaintive, powerful rock ballad that needs to punch and swing, but mostly it manages a kind of loping swagger. The main problem with 18, in my eye, was that much of the album seemed pale next to the enthusiastic glam-hop of “We Are All Made of Stars”. I remember commenting that he should have simply given in to his impulses and recorded an entire album in that poppy style. Well, he’s partly done that here, but missing is the kind of confidence that made tracks like “South Side” and “...Stars” so compelling in the first place.
The first real song, after an intro, belies the album’s generally somber feel—“Raining Again” brings to mind a more unabashedly romantic “South Side”. It’s got the kind of pulsing rock-infused house backbeat that instantly propels even an inferior track into the forefront of your attention. Moby’s guitar playing doesn’t get anywhere near as much as attention as his production, but the first half of Hotel distinguishes itself as a spotlight for his increasingly assertive six-stringed stylings. Paradoxically, he betrays an allegiance to both the simplicty and precision of his punk roots and the overwrought decadence of glam sidemen like Mark Ronson.
Although many other groups have garnered attention for their questionable allegiance to New Order’s style, Moby is one of the very few artists who seem to understand that the crucial element of that group’s august sound was not an easily-replicable mixture of dance beats and guitars but the simple sincerity of Bernard Sumner’s lyrics combined with the unambiguous melancholy of Peter Hook’s bass melodies. Despite the almost universal ironic pose adopted by their followers, New Order have never been anything less than crushingly sincere. After “Beautiful”, “Lift Me Up” begins a mini-suite of tracks seemingly indebted to New Order, with the plaintive energy of “Lift Me Up” followed by “Where You End”, which apes New Order even down to the kind of simple sing-song rhyming scheme Sumner often employs. Of course, these are both followed by a cover of “Temptation” sung by Laura Dawn. It entirely replaces the energy and anxiety of the original with a languid romanticism, and I’m not sure whether the transplant works or not. It’s worth hearing, at least.
I could be totally wrong about this, but “Spiders” seems to be an homage to early Bowie, (not to mention a literal tie-in with the plot of Ziggy Stardust) complete with a catchy chorus eerily reminiscent of the sing-song movement from “Starman”:
“Oh why did you leave? /
And why won;t you come save us again? /br> Come back to us Spiders, come on crush my hands, /
Let peace and beauty reign, and bring us love again, /
Like you can.”
I’ll admit I don’t understand the whole hand crushing thing.
“Dream About Me”, “Love Should” and “Slipping Away” are all ballads, and as such they occasionally veer towards the treacle but mostly avoid the pitfalls of gratuitous emotion by virtue once again of Moby’s unabashed sincerity. He has a way about him—he knows exactly when to punch up the synthesizers in the background in order to bolster the emotional hook of his weak voice. I can’t deny that there is something indellibly affecting about such masterfully crafted tracks, even if said effect is somewhat dulled by the repetitive sentiment.
Unfortunately, as good as some of the individual tracks are, that’s the main problem with Hotel: Moby needs a hug. He’s been morose before, but this seriously sounds like the kind of record you play the morning after getting broken up with. I can’t deny that “Forever”, with it’s mellow hip-hop beat and soft-spoken lyrics, is a beautiful track, but it makes me want to slit my freakin’ wrists. Following up such a sad track with one of his characteristically melancholy album-closing instrumentals (“Homeward Angel”) is simply too much.
In trying to avoid the use of the word “melancholy” in this review, I have failed horribly—but no other word or phrase better describes Hotel. It is a good disc, but dominated by the kind of obsessively sad songwriting that can make even the best album a hard slog for the undepressed. I feel bad for Moby listening to this, because he just doesn’t seem very happy at all. Much like Beck’s Sea Change, this is the work of a musician desperately in need of a pick-me-up. Sea Change however, was a very lushly-made sad album, whereas Hotel ascetic sensibility has all the warmth of an empty lobby. Maybe next time around he’ll remember to include some of the joyous eclecticism that made past albums such a feast, because Hotel is too emaciating to be more than partially satisfying.
Hotel comes with a bonus disc comprised completely of ambient tracks in the mode of his first Voodoo Child album, The End of Everything. If you’re a fan of that album, you will similarly enjoy this, but if you find 10-minute long minimalist synthesizer epics a hard sell you probably won’t get much out of it. It’s perfect music, however, for coming down from whatever downers you may have taken while under the influence of the first disc.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/moby-hotel/