[7 July 2009]
Something terrible seemed to happen once Moby realized that he made music that people actually wanted to hear: He started making music for those people.
Moby’s early career was defined as that of an electronic artist who couldn’t be boxed in. Whether writing a techno album, or an ambient album, or even a punk metal album tinged with stabs of ambient music, there was an unpredictability and an earnestness about him that made him appealing to those who found him. Of course, Play happened, and then everybody found him, because nobody had to look for him anymore. Suddenly, he’s selling millions of albums, he realizes he has an audience, and he starts writing for that audience. 18 may as well have been called Play: Part 2. Hotel played like a version of Animal Rights that the lite-FM crowd could enjoy. Last Night felt like a plea to an old fanbase—albeit a plea that, again, wouldn’t scare anybody off.
The point is, there was a time when he got away with things like “Thousand” and “Feeling So Real” and “Reject” and “Heavy Flow”. He could write songs like that because he didn’t have all that much to lose—the curious would find his albums, everyone else would go on ignoring them, and the world would keep turning.
Perhaps that’s why only now we’re seeing something of a return to the Moby we once knew and loved, the Moby who feels as though he has nothing to prove to anyone. Wait for Me is music made by someone not afraid to put an unpleasant sound in the mix, someone not afraid to put depression on record, someone not afraid to toss a quick little drone/noise piece in the middle of his lush, highly melodic album (that would be track six, “Stock Radio”). It sounds a lot like Play again, sure, but ten years older, wiser, and more exhausted in the best possible way.
“Don’t let me make the same mistake again,” Moby sings over and over in “Mistake”, his best vocal rock track since Everything is Wrong. It’s the type of song that’s instantly identifiable as Moby, with its lush string intro and those slightly broken, almost out-of-tune vocals eventually giving way to a chord progression shifting deftly from major to minor keys and electric guitars that pound home the rhythmic drive of the song. As the only song on the album to feature Moby’s vocals, it’s the most fully realized of the 16 visions on Wait for Me, and as such it rather stands out.
That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t material on Wait for Me that is as strong or stronger than “Mistake”, just that it’s the most song-like piece on the disc. Many of the songs here follow an old Moby bad habit of finding an idea, riding it for three minutes with a few extra patches of sound gradually mixed in, and then fading out. There are times when this works—the somber “Study War”, based around a spoken word sample, is a beautiful and hopeful piece, and despite the fact that “Ghost Return” seems over before it gets started, it’s a lovely late-album bit of nothing that seems just right. Other highlights include the Mazzy Star slide guitar of “Jltf” and the gorgeous title track, both perfect songs with lilting vocals in which to drown on a quiet night with the headphones on.
The headphones are, actually the ideal listening mechanism here—the stereo mix on many of these tracks is stunning. “Shot in the Back of the Head” sounds like an overly simplistic instrumental until you hear it in headphones, at which point ever sound gets its own spot in the mix and you hear just how layered it is, while album closer “Isolate”, with its perfectly mixed guitars, violins, and keyboards, sounds like the saddest concert hall in the world for three-and-a-half minutes. The mix is yet another factor pointing to just how much effort it seems that Moby put into making these songs sound like something worth listening to.
For all of its strengths, Wait for Me isn’t going to break any records, and its not going to rock the world of anyone not already acquainted with Moby—it is a Moby disc, almost to a fault. It’s a quiet, humble little thing that can pass by almost unnoticed if you don’t pay attention to it. It’s when you do pay attention that its beauty unfolds, and for the first time in a while, it doesn’t sound like he’s pandering. It’s the sound of a talented artist rediscovering his muse, and finding that he never even had to leave his bedroom to do so.