I've been spending a lot of time in coffee shops lately (there's no heat in my office; there is heat in Uptown Espresso). But South Lake Union is not Capitol Hill, and hipsters don't control the cd players in these parts. It was nice to get some Stevie Wonder, but a compilation that ended before "I Just Called to Say I Love You" would have been nicer. The main thing that got me thinking, though, was Moby. I listened to Moby's "Play" start to finish and absolutely loved it. I haven't listened to that album in years - somewhere along the way my enthusiasm waned, likely around the time the frat boy set caught on to it (and recommended it to me personally), but I wore that cd out for a year or more when it hit the stores. Moby has very few defenders nowadays. He went from underground favorite to giganto-star (electromusic's first real personality, in the TRL celebrity sense) - and with his weirdest record, although it's true this was grounded in more familiar American musical traditions than the Eurosleaze pop-techno of "Everything Is Wrong." And then, nothing. An album that nobody really seemed to like barely ventured higher than his still-selling previous album and some eye rolling sloganeering. Some B-Sides. Etc. If Moby was a rapper, he would have made the transition from music to sitcom/film by now.
But Moby, despite his once solid underground cred, has never been cool. (I do realize that that cred came more from clueless indie kids than the electronic crowd, by the way.) As techno gained steam in the nineties it did so with stomping, soaring rockingness, while Moby's forays into tuneless rawk never fooled anyone, his squishy synthesizers and swishy 3rd-gen pop r&b - what Pitchfork disses as "soda pop froth" - were not all that hard hitting. And his stuff that does hit pretty hard, like the awesome James Bond reworking, wasn't what made him popular. No, Moby became a superstar because he is the missing link between Brian Eno and Enya. He was destined to become unhip. His reputation was based on being brainy, but listening to his stuff now, it sounds pretty simple compared to the more cerebral electronic stylings that have networked their way into the indie consciousness one laptop at a time. And simple in a way that can never be mistaken for "minimalism" or "essentialism" or "neo-primitivism" (you can try to make that case if you want, but I've got three albums of sugary synths that say otherwise).
I liked Moby's other stuff, particularly a few tracks from the hit-and-miss "I Like to Score", the gently bumpy wallpaper of "Ambient" and the fast ones on "Everything Is Wrong." (His contribution to "Schoolhouse Rock Rocks" was pretty fun.) But "Play" was something else. A fun album that introduced the unitiated to that sort of sample-based composition, where Shadow & co. utilized found audio as the material for largely unrecognizable music, Moby was basically doing remixes. A thump here, a squirk there. But wholly reliant on the original recording. But he does it well, and the New Age-y cuts on the album, although they haven't aged as well, are just as good as "Honey" and "Run On."
Moby is pop, and he always has been pop. Seen as a mainstream popper injecting very unpop ideas into the realm of mass music (though perhaps not as effectively as Timbaland), he becomes infinitely more interesting. His best stuff - and his best stuff is when he's honest with himself about his poppish leanings - is hard to resist. He is, at base, a remix artist anyway. "Go" is basically a (brilliant) remix of the "Twin Peaks" theme. It's true that the ones he writes don't have the same heft, but he knows how to tweak. An album as purely pleasurable as "Play" is rare, and I'm guessing that it's all Moby will be remembered for. But I don't think it will ever get any less fun.