Thursday 25 February 2021

Retro Reviews: Moby - 18

It's been a long time since I've done one of these hasn't it? About 5 months by my count. This week is an album that I've been meaning to look at for a long time, I was originally going to be covering it's demographic-crossing older brother Play but I think it'd be much more interesting to focus on the follow up to that one - 18. However, there are still going to be tons of comparisons between the two as they are intrinsically linked - with the added benefit of nearly 20 years of hinsight this is going to be one of the more detailed Retro Reviews I've done (And I am now kicking myself for not calling this series Retro Perspectives instead).

It's an curious tale for sure, it's not technically Moby's 'difficult second album', but it might has well have been given the sheer number of people that were suddenly introduced to him via Play, combined with the label naturally wanting more of that sweet licensing money that it brought them in spades. The pressure must have been something else, though Moby says otherwise in interviews from the era, at least on the commercial front. I have a fair few gripes with Moby as a person, but I'm not going to let that influence this piece - I'm trying to keep it about the art and not the artist as it were. It's not somehting that's completely avoidable naturally, but I'm not going to air out all my grievances at once here. And with that, let's begin.

Well, what can you expect from 18? How do you follow up from Play - an album that was originally intended to be your last one, one that suddenly gained massive commercial success 9+ months after it's release? To sum it up slightly cynically: More of the same. It's a methodology I can sympathise with, having worked in the creative space it's very easy and appealing to stick to working with a specific style/format/medium that gains you the most praise from various sources. But with that comes the risk of stagnation. And that's a very real risk: Moby certainly wasn't the only one to be doing stuff in that vein, tracks like Blue Boy's Remember Me from '96 originally, predate Play and tread much the same ground, albeit in a more Big Beat style rather than Downtempo.

18 was Recorded between 2000 and 2002 - a fairly significant amount of time all things considered, (but still around the same time it took to record Play) and as was the case with so many albums at the time with a slight delay to alter some content in the wake of 9/11, an event that must have been particularly traumatic for Moby given his home studio was in Manhattan. Would a quicker release have helped a little bit? Maybe, but you'd run the risk of burning people out or having a slightly unfinished record if you chucked it out as soon as possible.

18 also marks a change in method when it comes to Moby's production, transitioning to software based production using ProTools - on the whole there are much less samples than on Play, but they aren't completely absent. There's plenty to be said about Moby's use of samples and his choice of them - these are typically R&B, Soul or even Gospel records. Some tracks from Play where pretty much entirely sample based, Run On for example was pretty much the entire original 'Run On for a Long Time' from Bill Landford and The Landfordairs, just with some additional noodling from Moby. I'm not going to touch too much on the ethical side of things here (and I've made my opinion known in the past anyway), but these samples definitely contribute a lot to that sound that defined Moby's work at the time - and it's always interesting to hear an Artist's influences in that way. Cutting back on them was a wise move both for Moby to start to further define his original works, and probably cut costs by not having to licence as many samples, but in doing so potentially alienates some of that popular audience that was attracted to Play in the first place.

But enough Preamble - let's talk the actual music. 18 opens in quite a bold fashion compared to the sample heavy Honey from the last album, instead we have We Are All Made Of Stars: an all-original song that does away with the electronics almost entirely and swaps it out for an of-the-era rock sound. A late addition to the album, penned after 9/11 and chosen as the lead single from the album - it's an odd choice for certain. One that I'd argue is deliberate though, what better way toe expand your radio appeal in the early 00's than going with some fairly safe pop-rock? Intended to 'inspire hope', It may come across as a little trite now both lyrically and musically but it's not bad, but certainly alienating (no pun intended) to anyone looking for something similar to the last album.

It's not long before echoes of Play come back though - In This World could have easily been a B-Side from the last album. While there are less samples this time around, the ones that are there are excellently sourced. Based around the incredibly powerful vocal from 'Lord Don't Leave Me' by The Davis Sisters, it's the distilled essence of the sound of Moby from this era - backed with piano chords and lush (if a bit overwrought) strings. It is still very well produced no doubt and perhaps it's the nostalgia talking but I do still like it. There is however that undeniable commercial slant to the entire thing, tracks like this are totally advertising bait (and it was in fact used as such by Renault) - but whether the track itself sounds inherently commercial, or that is just the benefit of hindsight I'm not so sure.

The trend continues on the next track (and single), with the similarly titled In My Heart opening with dancing piano arpeggios that you will certainly have heard in some promotional video or in the background of a TV show at some point, garnished with the now expected gospel sample. Great Escape deviates from this quite substantially though - featuring dream pop duo Azure Ray on the vocal front, it's an almost ambient showcase of strings that's a bit underwhelming. The vocals are great but they're let down by the cliché string accompaniment. Though admittedly there may be some bias to that as I'm not a huge fan of strings like this anyway but I can't help feel it would be improved were it more akin to something like UNKLE's Chaos for example.

On the flipside, Signs Of Love is where I think Moby shines through, it's got more in common with some of my favourite underrated bits from Play like If Things Were Perfect. Rather than the moody melancholy of Perfect though, Signs has that more uplifting sound that opened the album, at least on the instrumentation - the lyrical content can be a bit bleak at times. Having said that, Moby's slightly treated vocals are a treat to listen to too, they're much more melodic than that example from Play. I think it's aged much more gracefully than some tracks here - while it's still very clearly a product of the early 2000's it sounds a fair bit fresher. Though maybe that's a virtue of this one not being completely overplayed as it wasn't a single.

One Of These Mornings also fits this bill, and is one of my favourite barring the big 6 singles. Once again Moby's choice in samples remains stellar - the vocal taken from from The Caravans 'Walk Around Heaven All Day' is incredibly powerful. There's not a real lot done to the sample in the grand scheme of things, but it is still more varied than some other examples from Moby's catalogue, rather than just repeating over and over a la Honey for example. For me, this is one of the standout tracks on the album, partially because it's not one that's been played out to death as a single. It still suffers a bit from those grandiose string swells in the second half but that could just be my personal bias at show again, the first half is absolutely lovely either way. Slightly off topic, but there's also a version Moby re-did with Patti LaBelle on the vocals for the 2006 Miami Vice movie - the instrumentation on that one is slightly updated for the era, much more sedate than the album version, which lets Patti's vocal take centre stage. I think I still prefer the album version, but it's interesting to hear an updated, 100% sample-less version nonetheless.

I was originally going to try and skip over as many tracks that were singles as possible, but so far I'm at 3/6 and I'm about to make it four. If tracks like In This World and the like were Moby fishing for those sweet advertising licences, then Extreme Ways is him angling to do the same for film soundtracks. Moby had been featured on plenty of film soundtracks before this already, as evidenced by the existence of the cheekily titled 'I Like To Score' compilation, But even then there is an undeniably intentional 'cinematic' sound to this one - I always thought the high tension screeching strings of the intro may have been influenced by Moby's work with the James Bond Theme from '97, though that mix is a more standard techno/breakbeat affair. It's another standout of the tracklist just because of how different it is by virtue of leaning on that more pop-rock sound again, though bits of the rest of 18's sound do peek through on the choruses.

We're at the mid-point in the tracklist now, and it takes a little bit of a turn. Jam For The Ladies evokes the more Hip Hop parts of previous albums, Honey for starters - and a great bit of wordplay on the title: with MC Lyte and Angie Stone on the vocals and an overall theme of empowerment the track is a Jam For the ladies and not a Jam for the ladies. But man is it ever retro sounding, and not in an early 2000's way - parts of Jam sound almost 90's in their execution (though I think that may have been the point). It's not a bad track by any means, but it does stick out on the album in terms of sound for better or worse.

But Jam also marks the end of any upbeat moments (barring a few exceptions) - from here on out the rest of the album is firmly in downtempo territory. We have another single next too - Sunday (The Day Before My Birthday). As is to be expected at this point Moby's sample choices remain on point, this time Sunday by Sylvia Robinson. The sample is a little bit more jarringly cut this time around - there's distinct stops as cuts from the original end, it's a problem that's not really avoidable and not a complaint, but other tracks on this album definitely sound smoother. Other than that, at the risk of sounding reductive this one is more of the same: Radio friendly electronica. The Piano on this one sounds a little stiff, distinctly digital (which to be fair, it probably was), but there are other flourishes I appreciate - flashes of acoustic guitar and lavishings of other lush synths over the top mitigate that a bit.

It's at this point the album hits a bit of a rocky patch for me. The title track 18 is a bit if a let down. There's nothing wrong with it and it's not bad really, but it is just yet another piano & strings piece in a sea of them, this time with no sample to inject some flavour into it. The intro is lovely - but it soon falls into the same trap of becoming needlessly grandiose again. And that's really my main complaint with 18 as a whole, there are no really bad bits of the album - just bits where it's just a bit bland, something that only gets more pronounced as we're very familiar with the formula at this point.

It rebounds nicely on Sleep Alone though; actually going against the tried and tested formula that I just talked about. This is by far the most Trip-Hop style track on the album, a change up in style that the album could have used more of scattered throughout. This is also one of the tracks that had some alterations done to it in the wake of 9/11. It's easy with hindsight to criticise the changes as being over-encompassing but I think the changes made here actually work better: "Pieces of fire touch your hair" being replaced with "Pieces of light" is an improvement for sure, I think the changed line sounds nicer and fits better with the overall moody melancholy of the track. Though having said that I'm surprised that the some lines like "City once full of people... is desolate" made it in unaltered.

At Least We Tried returns to that now staple format once again though, to the point where I mistakenly believed that the vocal on this one was sampled as well. Turns out it's not, and is original from Freedom Bremner. You can forgive me for thinking that though as it's about as repetitive as the sampled vocals, it wouldn't have hurt to have an extra verse or two there for variety.

Harbour is a slightly odd one again, apparently originally written by Moby in 1984, it again leans back on that pop-rock vibe. It's an interesting move for sure, as someone in the creative field it's not often you can go back to an older piece and not be struck by how much you've improved since then! The guitar backing here is a welcome addition, it sounds great and is a refreshing change of pace - especially those distant solos put in here and there. The string backing does return on the choruses but it's a little more sedate than previous tracks and I think actually compliments well with Sinead O'Connor's vocal here. I'm not so sure about they lyrical content in spots, but I can't deny that Sinead's treatment of them is brilliant.

We're entering the final stretch now: Look Back In shares a little bit more sound history with Play once again - the hazy beats of this one sounding a little like Down Slow. While fairly short, it's not long before it also falls victim to the curse of the strings on this album, and as a result it comes out sounding like one of the most corporate songs on here.

The Rafters, by contrast is an absolutely brilliant piece, right from the get-go we're hit with a distinctly different flavour of sample, setting up with a House style build up too (one time where an overly MIDI sounding Piano is actually a good thing!). When the full fat of the track kicks in its like night & day - as good of a sound that Moby's use of the R&B / Gospel has throughout the majority of this album, I think it would have been wise to embrace this sound a little bit more too: Gospel isn't always the slightly dreary melancholy that most of the past samples have been. The upbeat nature of this track is just so infectiously catchy that I can't believe that there isn't more of it to be had on the album, or that this wasn't one of the singles either - it would have played excellently into that 'inspiring hope' angle that Moby envisioned as well.

And finally: I'm Not Worried At All. Actually another one of my favourites and I think a great album closer, though it does end a little abruptly. It's again another one of those tracks where it doesn't feel like much has been done to the sample other than cutting it up into bits, but I think in this case it works really well. And for as much as I've knocked the piano & strings formula in the latter half of this overview, I can't deny that it works really, really well here - could be that it's not quite as overpowering as on previous tracks. It's a beautiful piece, one that I think genuinely does capture that hopeful vibe Moby had in mind. Honourable mention to the source of the sample in 'He'll Roll Your Burdens Away' by The Banks Brothers and The Greater Harvest Back Home Choir for being a major source of that feeling.

It's worth noting that after 18 Moby's next album - 2005's Hotel, leans more toward the rock front again. Perhaps disappointing for fans, but just think how much the electronic landscape changed between those years, a re-run of something like Play or 18 would have sounded pretty dated by then. Truth be told I haven't kept up with many of his releases past this point so I can't really comment further! Closing thoughts - if you're a fan of Play, 18 is worth a listen for sure - it was always going to be difficult to follow up that album but I think 18 does a good job of it, though perhaps lacking that instant pop appeal of the previous album in places. It has its moments where it stumbles but it comes back around by the end. On the whole it is a fine album, but overexposure and time have made it perhaps a bit more generic than when it was new. It's probably for the best that Moby moved away from this style after this album though, I don't know if it'd stretch to another full length, which is fine as these two albums together provide more than enough to get stuck into as-is, doubly so if you pick up the respective B-Side albums for each of them as well.

Apologies for the length and if this feels a bit fragmented. It's easily the longest Retro Review I've done so far and I've done it in bits across multiple days, I've tried to proof-read before publishing but some errors may have slipped through. Still, this was a fun exercise, though the length may have put me off doing another for a while! But as always: Stay safe and enjoy the music.


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