For a while, Moby was trying to escape the sound he made ubiquitous when he never said no to the licensing of any of Play‘s admittedly brilliant 18 tracks. Whether trying on tidy synth pop or eschewing his melodic sensibilities for the dance floor, it was clear that he had tired of his take on reflective, soulful, string-laden, sample-based music just as much as we had. He left that sound behind just long enough for its return to feel welcome when he released Wait for Me a couple years ago, and the humility that he somehow fused into that album was palpable. Despite the return to the sound that brought him the most success, it felt as though he was making music for himself again. He’s always been at his best when he’s looked inward for inspiration, and the idea that his insular side was making another appearance was enough to add “hope for the future” to Wait for Me‘s many positive traits.
As much as the advance press for Destroyed plays up the inward nature of the composition and production process—it is a product of tour-inspired insomnia, a study in the creative inspiration that can occur in the hours between midnight and 6 am—the first impressions it offers are a little too close to Wait for Me for comfort. The immediate inclination is to call it the 18 to Wait for Me‘s Play, something that no album should ever aspire to.
It starts out all right. “The Broken Places” is a lovely bit of quiet, emphasizing the Moby trademark of easing a listener into an album rather than exploding out of the gate. Sounds fade in and out of the mix, suggesting interesting textures but never overwhelming the hollow synth chords that define the song. “Be the One” is a fascinating exercise in autotuned mantra-building that eventually tosses a rock beat on the layered voices and pushes them to the background. “Sevastopol” is as adventurous with sound as Moby has been in quite some time, building a beat out of clips and scrapes, allowing syncopation and dissonance to flirt with the everpresent Moby-style Thick Synth Chords. Best of all, “Sevastopol” has a bridge, a wonderful, soaring sequence that takes the song to a completely new place while never sacrificing its identity.
The bridge of “Sevastopol” is helpful because it allows for easy reference in citing one of the faults of Destroyed, a Moby pattern in recent years that has progressed to a disease: Once you hear the first four bars of many Moby songs, you have heard the whole song. The further you get into Destroyed, the more often this phenomenon occurs. “The Right Thing”, which builds beautifully on a couple of soul samples by augmenting it with pulsing strings and a nice, meaty beat, really feels as though it’s about to go someplace astonishing by its midpoint, but the only place it goes is sideways, offering development in the removal and reintroduction of various elements, but never adventuring beyond the chord progression that starts the song.
Penultimate track “Lacrimae” is eight minutes long, and it does the same thing. Like on “Sevastopol”, the sounds Moby is toying with here are interesting, and the texture of the song is a little bit sandy, but at eight minutes, there’s a major missed opportunity when you’re only hearing four chords over and over again. Even “The Day”, a pop song with verses and a chorus and everything, has a I-V-vi-IV verse and a I-V-vi-IV chorus (you know, the “Canon in D”/“Let it Be”/“I’m Yours”/“Hey Soul Sister” progression). Sure, Moby’s vocal melodies change up the sound from verse to chorus and back again, but still. It’s the same. Four. Chords. Over and over again.
Once you hear this tendency, you can’t unhear it. These songs turn into four-, five-, or eight-minute waits for the next track, even when the next track may well do the same thing. A few more interesting tracks do crop up, like the intense “Victoria Lucas”, which sounds like an update of 18‘s “Extreme Ways” and barely escapes the repetition trap by tweaking the chords just a bit a little more than halfway through the song. Really, that’s all it takes, and he couldn’t muster even that for so many of these songs?
Contrast all of this with the sublime beauty of “Stella Maris”, a simple exercise in building string synths with an operatic soprano in a very large room singing over the top. Its entire first half sounds as though Moby is making it up as he goes along, stringing whatever chord he thinks might sound good onto whichever one he previously played. Eventually it falls into a pretty strict pattern, when the big space synths come in and overwhelm the violins, but the utter lack of percussion and the beautifully understated ending make sure that this doesn’t matter. “Stella Maris” is everything Moby’s quiet work of late has been missing: adventure, experimentation, the daring to eschew percussion entirely.
Obviously, there are too many complaints here to ever lead into honest affection for the album, but there is a mitigating factor at work with Destroyed: context. While it is certainly true of any album that the listening environment plays a part in the way that one hears the music, never have I, personally, had such different experiences with an album based on context. On a long drive in the rain, it sounded basically perfect. As the last thing I heard before falling asleep, it was just about right. There was a mood coming through, something like a cross between melancholy and utter peace, that just felt right for those situations. The repetition, the similarity of approach, it was all lost in the mood, which is exactly what needs to happen for Destroyed to leave any positive impression whatsoever. In the middle of the day under fluorescent lights, on the other hand, Destroyed is mostly boring and repetitive.
While the album most certainly has its faults, then, it must be acknowledged that there is a time and a place for an album like Destroyed, a time and a place that may not make themselves immediately obvious. This is not an album that can by any measure be called a masterwork, or even one of the better entries in what is quickly becoming an impressive-sized discography. It merely has its place, in much the same way that Ambient has its place, or Animal Rights. Destroyed is an album created in the middle of the night for the middle of the night. Disappointment awaits those seeking anything more.
// Notes from the Road
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