In 1992, Moby was among the bristling avant garde of dance music, at a time when that genre seemed poised to break through to the mainstream in a big way. It was with him that it did break, just a few years later. 1999’s Play, mainly a roster of scratchy blues and gospel samples layered over languid, housey tracks, sold nine million copies worldwide, spawned a series of hits, and introduced us to the ubiquity principle, whereby artists and their albums’ success can be measured by the fact that you hear them everywhere. He was Feist before Feist, “Young Folks” and “Crazy” all rolled into one, somehow pumping out of speakers at the Gap, the Duane Reade, your doctor’s office, your best friend’s cocktail party, and all those Silicon Alley startup parties. Every single track on Play was licensed for commercial use. The future was then.
Like the era of “irrational exuberance” that produced it, that album is likely to be the achievement for which Moby is best remembered, though he recently remarked that “in hindsight, it wasn’t fun being the crucified poster child for selling out.”
It’s unlikely too that he’ll want to be remembered as Eminem’s nemesis (he spoke out on Em’s misogyny! Em called him a “bald!” “fag!” There was a scuffle at the V.M.A.’s!), an episode in which it’s fair to say we all lost some dignity just by living through it.
Yet whether he likes it or not, Moby was in many ways the perfect personification of the late 90’s Zeitgeist, a nerdy guy who won a tremendous windfall with all of that thinking outside the box.
Either way, that legacy stuff has a lot to do with the nostalgic turn Moby has taken on his latest, “Last Night,” a valentine of sorts to the salad days of New York’s club scene (or at least Moby’s experience of said scene, from roughly 1981-1991).
Born Richard Melville Hall on Sept. 11, 1965, Moby grew up just outside New York, mainly in Darien, Conn., discovered punk rock as a teen, went vegan, found Jesus, played in some hardcore bands, got into the nascent techno scene and, through that, the subsequent rave boom. By 1989 he was living full time in the big city, D.J.ing around town and producing his first singles. The roommates at that first pad on 14th street and Third avenue? Painter Damian Loeb and fellow DJ Stretch Armstrong. Just like a real-life version of Party Girl.
Moby became a fixture in the city’s clubs and at its raves, at long-gone spaces like the Palladium, Mars, and MK, as well as illegal warehouses in frontier neighborhoods, like Williamsburg. He remained in New York through his rise to fame and the comedown that followed, letting MTV’s cameras into his Feng-Shui-tastic Chinatown flat for Cribs, opening tea shop and eatery TeaNY in 2002 (he’s since bowed out, but the place endures). So with all that it’s no surprise that this city figures centrally in his life and work.
Perhaps also spurred on by the failure of his recent, forgettable indiscrections: 2002’s Play-lite, 18 and 2005’s pastoral guitar bore, Hotel, Moby is seeking to remind people that he was the man who brought electronic music out of its shell, and laid the groundwork for the effortlessness of today’s electro-crossovers, like LCD Soundsystem, Simian Mobile Disco, or Justice.
And of course, 42 is a great age to start having that midlife crisis. In the past few years Moby has returned to the club scene, D.J.’ing regularly, staying out late, becoming romantically linked to the likes of Natalie Portman (it’s hard to say whether that’s a cry for help or just confusing). “Last Night” purports, in Moby’s words, to document an “8 hour night out in New York City and condense it into a 65 minute-long album.” In a lot of ways a more accurate appraisal would be that the music of the 80’s and early 90’s were condensed into these 65 minutes.
The album opens with “Ooh Yeah,” built on a plodding piano melody overlaid with sappy synth strings, wah-wah guitars and moaning vocals drowning in echo. It feels claustrophobic and more like a pantomime of old material than a meditation upon influences. “I Love to Move in Here” shows a little more spirit, its droning, repeated piano trills a dead-on homage to soulful late 80’s house music. Grandmaster Caz, one of the original Cold Crush MCs, turns in a vague but solid verse. “257.zero,” offers more of the same, with its acid squelches and vague, robotic vocal samples ranting off random numbers summoning the groundless pathos of so much rave music. It sounds an awful lot like a Moby song, just one you can’t quite place. Finally, “Everyday It’s 1989,” in addition to boasting the most apt title on the album, delivers the promise of Moby’s nostalgia trip, its diva vocal, pumping piano, metronomic strings, and the inevitable breakdown-buildup-freakout celebrating why there was so much fuss about club music back then in the first place.
The rest of the album meanders, from “Live For Tomorrow” and its mildly irritating inspira-trance to “Alice” and its borrowing of industrial hip-hop, featuring featuring U.K.-based rapper Aynzil, as well as U.K.-based Nigerian singers Smokey and S.O. Simple from 419 Squad. The rhyming is pretty cool, but this feels a lot like a song you might hear in a video game. And that’s just it. Much of this music feels too familiar to really mean much, and despite a few genuinely special moments, on the whole “Last Night” feels less like homage and more like an inoffensive mimicry. It’s background music waiting to happen.
“Hyenas” pulls out a smoky female vocal in French, and recalls David Holmes’ suave soundtrack work, while “I’m in love,” (another dusky female vocal) goes minimal (save for some trancey strings), but while these are meant to relay the romantic moments of the evening, they feel like marketing gimmicks.