Few artists have weathered the vicissitudes of fame with as much equanimity as Moby. He first rose to prominence some fifteen years ago with an unofficial remix of the Twin Peaks theme called “Go”, released as a B-side to his first single, “Mobility”. The song garnered just enough attention for Moby to qualify as a one-hit wonder, but strangely enough it didn’t stop there. In 1995 he released his debut LP, Everything Is Wrong, on Elektra Records. Although the album fizzled commercially, it was a critical smash, and was named SPIN magazine’s album of the year. Of course, he followed up Everything Is Wrong with Animal Rights, an album of intentionally grating thrash-punk, offset against melancholy instrumental compositions (at least, on the American release; in the UK the instrumental portions were included on a separate disc). No one really liked it, except for Robert Christgau.
And then came Play. It wouldn’t be quite accurate to call Play a comeback album, because in all seriousness Animal Rights killed his career with what seemed to be a crushing finality. But somehow Play catapulted him back into the spotlight on a previously inconceivable scale. It was a slow build, but the immediate critical acclaim was gradually matched by commercial success. Initially, Moby didn’t even have an American record contract, having been dropped by Elektra after the career-summarizing I Like to Score anthology and Animal Rights. As has been reported in just about every article to be written about Moby in the ensuing years, every track off Play was eventually licensed for use in movies, television, or advertisements. Rather than serving to dilute the music’s potency, the promotions gave Moby a near-ubiquity that enabled the music to reach a much larger audience than could have ever been exposed to it through conventional channels. It was hardly overnight success, but a decade’s worth of hard work had finally paid off with platinum sales and unanticipated celebrity. The licensing fees from Play gave his new American label, V2—previously an underperforming appendage of the Virgin conglomerate—an influx of cash that enabled them to become one of the premiere players in the indie rock boom of the early ‘00s—subsequently, they signed the White Stripes.
But then overexposure took its inevitable toll. Moby always made an awkward celebrity, congenitally meek and cerebral, and his subsequent public feud with Eminem was perhaps the most bizarre incident in either artist’s careers. It didn’t really matter that the “feud”, such as it was, was almost comically mismatched, with Eminem taking public potshots at Moby after Moby made a perfectly civil critique of Eminem’s inflammatory subject matter and irresponsible lyrics. For anyone paying attention, Moby made Eminem look like the petulant and reckless child he was, but there was a larger problem. That Moby had actually become big enough to be a feasible target for a cultural juggernaut like Eminem was just slightly absurd—the default mode for electronic musicians since the genre’s advent has always been humble anonymity. So when Moby’s star began to fade in the long aftermath of Play‘s remarkable success, it seemed that it was probably for the best. His achievements had guaranteed he would be left to his own devices to produce music for the rest of his life (a far cry from the days immediately preceding the release of Play, when he considered returning to school in order to study architecture).
Given all that, how do you possibly encapsulate a career as bizarre and eventful as Moby’s? Well, apparently not very easily, to judge by the disc at hand. Moby’s great strength as an artist has always been his willful eclecticism. From the very beginning, he always stood out from his peers—his early days in hardcore punk sat uncomfortably next to his status as a pioneer of the American rave scene. As a result, his best albums always seemed slightly off-kilter. Everything Is Wrong juxtaposed the hard rave sound of “Feeling So Real” and “Everytime You Touch Me” with the thrash of “All That I Need Is to Be Loved” and “What Love”, the chilly sadness of “First Cool Hive”, and the downright awe-inspiring modernism of “God Moving Over the Face of the Water”. Somehow, rather than sounding like a confused jumble, these disparate sounds gained power from their uneasy proximity. The unifying element throughout it all was Moby’s sincerity, a moral statement that could not have been more at odds with the prevailing sentiment of 1995.
The picture of Moby to found on Go has been, to a large degree, whitewashed. The genre hopscotch has been replaced by a more-or-less coherent narrative thru-line that places the atmospheric dance of “Go” on a direct continuum with the guitar pop of 2005’s “Beautiful”. To an extent it works, in that a listener totally unfamiliar with Moby could hear the disc and come away with a fairly good sampling of some of Moby’s greatest moments, without any of the tricky cognitive dissonance that accompanies Moby’s most accomplished albums. The dominant mode holds fast to the slightly melancholy songwriting of Moby’s three V2 records to date—Play, 2002’s 18, and 2005’s Hotel, with the impish groove of tracks like “Honey” and “Feeling So Real” mostly sidelined to the last third of the album. “Feeling So Real” appears, regrettably, only as a live cut, hampered by bad mixing and an awkward arrangement.
Furthermore, while the advertisements and promotional materials make a big deal about this being Moby’s first comprehensive anthology (as opposed to the compilations covering his independently-released rave material and the Elektra years), the result is anything but. Although he released three full albums and an EP on Elektra, only two tracks from those releases are included here—“Feeling So Real” appears in the live format, and “God Moving Over the Face of the Water” in the truncated and far inferior version produced for the movie Heat. Nothing appears off Animal Rights, not even his controversial cover of Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver”. Of his early rave material, only “Go” appears, and that in an anemic 2006 re-edit. “Thousand” is conspicuously absent, despite its long-standing infamy as the fastest song ever recorded, according to Guinness. Out of sixteen tracks, a full thirteen are culled exclusively from his V2 albums.
Moby is an extremely prolific artist who often records multiple versions of the same track, so anything resembling a “final” draft of his career would be tentative at best. But still—why is the original album version of “South Side” included, when the version most people have heard is the one featuring Gwen Stefani on vocals? The original was even deleted off subsequent pressings of the album, in favor of the Stefani version. Also absent is the version of “Honey” recorded with Kelis and “Jam for the Ladies” with Princess Superstar. Despite his frequent collaborations, the only guest artist to appear on Go is Debbie Harry, who appears on the obligatory new track, “New York, New York”. It’s a good track, as these things go, not so much a leap forward as an affable summation, a fleet-footed pop dance number in the vein of a more glammy “South Side”.
Moby—“New York, New York”
The music itself is, for the most part, stellar. Although I could make the argument that the selections off Play work better in the context of that album, they are still universally strong pieces. Some of the pop material off his later V2 albums don’t stack quite so high, but that’s probably as much a consequence of Moby’s relatively weak voice as anything else. Like most electronic musicians, he sounds best when he isn’t saying anything at all, and attempts to fit his expansive sound into a more congenial pop format, while hardly bad, still seem somewhat flaccid in the face of his more expressive instrumental and sample-based music. I can’t deny that “We Are All Made of Stars” is a fabulous track (even if it’s heavily indebted to Bowie’s “Heroes”, Jet’s career to date can certainly vouch for the fact that there are worse things from which to filch).
The remix disc is fairly innocuous, even if it doesn’t contain a single remix of tracks not recorded for V2. It’s certainly representative—even if I personally dislike the Ferry Corsten mix of “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?”, there is no disputing that it was a popular track. “Bodyrock” and “Jam for the Ladies” appear here in remixed form, despite their exclusion from the first disc. The Nevins’ mix of “Jam for the Ladies” is satisfying, and the Axwell mix of “Slipping Away” (off Hotel) is a fantastic recontextualization of what is probably Moby’s best vocal performance to date. Still, I can’t help thinking that they could have included the Beatmasters’ 7” mix of “Everytime You Touch Me”. But then, anyone who will lament the absence of the Beatmasters’ 7” mix of “Everytime You Touch Me” probably already has it.
In any event, although there is no disputing the quality of the music on display, Go adds up to nothing so much as a big, fat missed opportunity. The lack of material from the Elektra records (which reeks of penny-pinching as much as anything else), the lack of the original “Go”, the lack of diversity in the track selection—it all adds up to a compilation that is frankly unrepresentative. Even though the disc barely clocks in at an hour, they omit any choice album tracks or B-sides, along with any tracks produced by Moby’s similarly prolific alter-ego Voodoo Child. There’s no punk, barely any dance music. This disc threatens to affirm the suspicions of Moby’s harshest critics: that he creates toothless adult-contemporary couched in electronic clothes.
Moby is a lot better than that. Perhaps it’s inevitable, given the multiple record companies involved, that any attempt to unite the disparate elements of Moby’s career would be doomed to failure. It’s probably best this way, because while the idea of a one-disc representative sampler of his career is a tantalizing ideal, it’s probably impossible. Better for the prospective fan to wade into the murky bouillabaisse of Moby’s individual albums: start with either Play or Everything Is Wrong, both of which remain damn-near perfect, and work your way out from there according to taste. It’s fitting, considering Moby’s status as the premiere electronic musician in America, that his career would contain such a jumbled multitude of styles. Although he may be descended from Herman Melville, he has much more in common with Walt Whitman: he contains multitudes, far more than can reasonably be expected to fit on a single plastic disc.
Moby—“Jam for the Ladies”
// Notes from the Road
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