As with Luna and Pavement, we’re all supposed to like and respect Moby even if we don’t particularly enjoy his work. Yet unlike past hipster icons, Moby is supposed to appeal for reasons very much rooted in commerce, not in art. He is one of the first commercially viable electronic-music artists, he has made a mini-fortune selling his music to advertisers, and he has a “Lollapalooza”-like summer tour – “Area: Two” – that fares reasonably well.
But make a case for Moby as an artist and you’re on much shakier ground: His oeuvre includes a dreadful compilation of movie-soundtrack music (I Like to Score), an unbearably clunky melding of sophomoric punk and ragga-rave (Everything Is Wrong), bland, self-loathing punk (Animal Rights), and, most famously, bluesy electronic music (Play) done far better by the more talented but lesser-known Green Velvet, Romanthony, and Moodymann.
Pop-music critics have enthusiastically greeted all but a few of Moby’s stylistic changes, as if simply switching gears equaled artistry. But Moby is no auteur, a fact made painfully clear by his terrible new album, 18, which revisits the already derivative territory of Play. For Moby, the songs – washy, ambient soundscapes, snippets of wailing divas (both R&B and gospel this time around), and portentous piano playing – remain precisely the same. Even the few detours are snoozy: “Jam for the Ladies” joylessly mimics the retro big-beat B-boy-isms of Fatboy Slim and Scanty Sandwich, and “We Are All Made of Stars” reaches for the light optimism of early-eighties pop but ends up with gauzy, vacant sentimentality.
Moby’s rise from rave icon to pop star should’ve set him apart from the increasingly boring, workmanlike D.J.-culture pack. But with his new album’s uninspired title (18, for eighteen songs), his by-the-numbers contrarianism (he recently confessed to Maxim that he’s into Celine Dion), and the faux-Everyman prose of his press bio (which, by the way, parses sales numbers with such seriousness that one would mistake him for Jay-Z’s accountant), Moby proves just as uninteresting as the coterie of track-suited D.J.’s so intent on creating a “vibe” that they end up with vapor. It’s electronic music for dullards.