Reviewed by Peter Bate
Yes, we know this album is more than a year old but better late than never, eh? Apart from exciting a few drooling critics, 'Play' went largely unnoticed when it was released last year. Yet its gradual ascent up the album charts, reaching number one this April (marking Moby's near monopoly of the TV ad soundtrack market), is one of the first success stories of this new musical millennium. Richard Hall (as his ma knows him) has remained a colourful, controversial and gifted character on the fringes of Christianity for a number of years. A 1996 appearance at Greenbelt and LP liner notes praising Jesus (amongst others) have intrigued believers. Meanwhile, Moby is scathing of US fundamental evangelicals and tales of his indulgent excesses in Q and other publications, coinciding badly with a recent feature in America's CCM mag, left God-fearing fans with their heads in their hands. When I grabbed a phone interview with him in January, apart from voicing his bewilderment at journalists' attempts to box him in, he said: "I love Christ and his teachings but I don't think of myself as a Christian. I'm only 34 years old and I live in a world that's 6 billion years old. I can't really come up with any definite conclusions from that. My relationship with Christ is very complicated. I don't know if I can explain it in a 15 minute phone interview." And so he didn't. And so we're left guessing, which leads us to 'Play'. First things first, this is a highly accessible, infectious dance album, mixing thick wedges of breakbeat, techno, hip and trip hop and ambient (the spine-chilling choral finale, "My Weakness", is worth shelling out your cash for alone) stylings. But what sets it off is the classically-trained musician's skilful use of early 20th century gospel, blues and folk field recordings which provide the bedrock for 'Play's' 18 tracks. On "Run On" we have some long-gone brother warning: "You're gonna reap just what you sow/let me tell you God Almighty's gonna cut you down" over bouncing piano, juxtaposed with the sorrowful lament of "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?" Moby's own vocals, set against swirling keyboard washes, samples and picked guitars, struggle to match the guts of these faceless heroes, but the range of emotion created in this mood music is remarkable. Arguments about his personal theology may rage, but any musician who can get the lyric "Nobody knows my troubles but God" ("Natural Blues") aired on Top Of The Pops deserves our appreciation.
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