Moby Plays to His Strengths Again (Finally!) on the Surprisingly Soulful 'Innocents'

8
Innocents
Critical Mass
Release Date: September 30, 2013
Label: mute

by Barry Walters

A ridiculously easy target for would-be Eminems everywhere, Moby, by virtue of his wild popularity and innate friendliness, long ago became one of those acts — like his kindred civilized buds in Weezer — that somehow became essential for latent and blatant hotheads to bully. His only crimes are either deviating from what he does best or coasting on substandard versions of what he once did far better. But every post-peak musician is guilty of that; Moby's music just gets better media/product placement because it's just so inherently cinematic and, in multiple senses, commercial. He's the John Williams of EDM.

Yet just when probably even his accountant had written him off as a has-been hack, Richard Melville Hall has finally created something that approaches the awe-striking beauty of Play, his career-making, ad-campaign-buoying 1999 masterwork. Unlike 2009's Wait for Me and 2011's Destroyed — his previous attempts at a sequel — his new Innocents doesn't dabble: It's thoroughly of a piece, and that piece is dance music without much in the way of dance beats. The folks who thought Daft Punk's Random Access Memories wasn't EDM enough will love to hate this.

Innocents offers nothing but mid-to-low-tempo ballads built on keyboard overdubs massed to approximate symphonies. The vocals are mostly newly recorded, not sampled. Men — often guys besides Moby, thank goodness — as well as women now supply them; everyone sounds mournful. Despite his intelligence, this recent Hollywood transplant favors soul-searching over smarts, and his guests, who here mostly write their own lyrics, do the same. Aside from some drums and orchestration, Moby once again plays everything here, but he still hasn't become a particularly adept musician, nor a varied composer: Nearly all of his chord changes happen at the same spots in each song, so everything has a similar, simple, steady flow. Syncopation is minimal; surprises are few.

But there's a hypnotic purity to Innocents, as if the guy finally surrendered to the fact that these psalm-like prayers are where he excels —maybe they’re only thing he's truly great at. He doesn't get much credit for this because his image is so intensely egghead-ish, but Moby's true talent is gospel that doesn't announce itself as such. He makes spiritual music about being in spiritual crisis. Here it’s the blues, largely without blues chords.

Instead, Innocents is technologically and emotionally black and blue. In just about every interview, Moby boasts that his records are — to him, at least, and probably him alone — "lo-fi," and that he employs "broken" equipment. He similarly favors voices with imperfections less ungainly than his own unsteady croak that nevertheless still emphasize human frailty. Here, Wayne Coyne, Damien Jurado, Cold Specks, Inyang Bassey, and Skylar Grey all declaim like the pained church and folk singers sampled on Play. The results — mixed and co-produced, in a rare appearance from a second set of ears and hands, by Mike "Spike" Stent, a decidedly hi-fi guy whose credits include Muse and Coldplay — juxtapose lonely moments of isolation with sweeping forces of nature, from hailstorms to sunsets.

This Modern Man vs. God stuff is familiar territory for Moby, a Christian who routinely questions Christianity, but Stent — much like Martin Hannett did for Moby’s heroes in Joy Division — helps make these musical and sonic juxtapositions more tangible. The sounds may be big, but the melodies are often ascetic and Erik Satie-like; the arrangements also hone in on lone details, like the peculiar ping that repeats throughout album opener "Everything That Rises." Coyne, who's made a career out of aestheticizing drugs, blends his voice with Moby's on "The Perfect Life," a lyrically despairing sing-a-long about slow suicide assisted by dope. But Bassey, who also upstaged her boss on Destroyed, steals everyone's thunder with "Don't Love Me," a pleading, genuine blues jam with a lumbering gait, as if she's wounded and unable to follow her abandoning lover.

Yet the high point here — for the first time since his initial 1990 club hit "Go" — is largely instrumental. Much like that song sampled "Laura Palmer's Theme" from Twin Peaks, this album's "Saints" paraphrases the symphonic opening of Grace Jones's "Slave to the Rhythm," recreating its fanfare blare but changing just enough to dodge plagiarism. Set to Innocents' most insistent rhythm — a freshly played, slowed-down variation on the jungle breakbeats Moby favored on 1995's Everything Is Wrong — the track swells with a euphoria made more remarkable by the surrounding depression. Bassey lets rip on some wordless wails, and the heaving, genuine orchestration — another stylistic cop from the Trevor Horn-produced "Slave" — builds and builds its own stairway to heaven. Here, finally, is the transcendence ordinarily denied by this openly frustrated man's fixation on the broken and bruised, the belated rebuff to his bullies. Sometimes even Moby gets better.

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