Moby may look like an unlikely candidate for the gig, but by now he’s the face of modern music. It’s probably just because he likes everything. Too catholic in his tastes to pass for a true dance-floor DJ, he finds his real artistic vocation as the home DJ, the guy obsessively making his own mix tapes (or burning his own mix CDs) and foisting them on his friends. The payoff: his 1999 classic Play, a deeply eccentric and garbled spiritual statement that nonetheless smashed through music-biz boundaries to find new audiences all over the world, eventually selling almost 10 million copies and gracing more TV commercials than Mr. Whipple. Jumping off from Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You,” Moby took ghostly old voices from blues and gospel folkways and remixed them into seductive new dance music. You had to worry that the sequel would beat the formula into the ground, turning ancient spirituals into ad jingles: “Nobody Knows the Arby’s I’ve Seen,” “Nike’s Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” “Colonel Sanders Gonna Make Up My Dying Bed” or “Oh, Lawdy, I’m Not Gonna Pay a Lot for This Muffler.”
In addition to everything else it was, Play was a mess. Everybody remembers it for the blues-gospel techno pastiche of highlights such as “Natural Blues” and “Honey,” but they added up to only one-third or so of the album. The rest of Play veered from somber New Age goop to metal-guitar blare to goth gloom to silly Paula Abdul-style mall disco (the freak hit “South Side”). That’s the way Moby works: His 1996 Animal Rights was packaged as his metal move, but it was dominated mostly by such spacey keyboard doodles as “Love Song for My Mom” (and why hasn’t Hallmark bought up that one yet?). Messes are Moby’s thing, and the disjunct segue is his signature groove. So 18 is neither a retread of Play nor a departure from it. It’s pop music the way Moby has always heard it: a frantic dance of different sounds and styles, banging into the wall a time or two but hitting sublimely beautiful highs along the way.
On 18, Moby turns up the vocals — only a handful of tracks are old-school instrumentals. Understandably, he spends much of the album trying to re-create the gospel flavor of Play, but all the soulful diva action gets tiresome after a while. Despite gorgeous guest shots from Jennifer Price (“In This World”) and the Shining Light Gospel Choir (“In My Heart”), there’s too much vocal holleration and not enough songwriting to go around. The strongest tunes on 18 are the ones that hold bigger surprises, especially the beatific New Wave space oddity “We Are All Made of Stars.” It sounds like a title that Ultravox or the Comsat Angels or somebody would have used in 1982, but it soars over a New Order-like guitar groove and Moby’s modest voice. He sounds like an earnest young cleric scattering blessings over his flock, singing a love song to his new mass audience: “People, they come together/And people, they fall apart/No one can stop us now/Because we are all made of stars.”
“Sunday (The Day Before My Birthday)” is another coup, a funk collage sampling breathy vocals from Seventies disco kitten Sylvia Robinson, of “Pillow Talk” fame. And since Moby’s birthday is September 11th, you’re free to read whatever symbolism you like into Robinson’s nostalgic sigh for the day before. “Jam for the Ladies,” featuring MC Lyte and Angie Stone, is a decent idea that never gets off the ground. But Azure Ray lends a frail, lovely vocal to the ballad “Great Escape,” foreshadowing “Harbour,” an amazing Unrest-style guitar drone that guest-stars – are you sitting down, Your Holiness? — Sinead O’Connor, who hasn’t sounded this awake since her 1995 Shane MacGowan duet “Haunted.”
As for Moby’s own voice, the guy no longer sings like a DJ. He’s learned about vocal projection the way he’s learned about album pacing, so he comes on stronger than ever as a singer, especially when he shows off his new deep-throat Iggy growl in “Extreme Ways.” Techno might remain Moby’s starting point, but his impolitic insistence on stroking his pop-star ambitions, however many of his anonymity-minded techno allies it may have cost him, has been good for his music, forcing him to master the pop virtues of melody, variety and rhythmic drive. As a result, he remains one of the few artists around who thinks big enough to make a record with the emotional reach of 18. But as he already proved years before he broke through to the designer-sneaker masses, he’s committed to the lifelong pursuit of the perfect mix tape.