At the offset of a career that now spans 15 studio albums in 26 years, Moby had a reputation for an ever-shifting sound – indeed his early albums took in house and rave (on his self-titled debut), ambient (Ambient strangely enough) and even punk (the still-baffling Animal Rights). However, on 1995’s otherwise-dated Everything Is Wrong, he started to create a template that changed everything – the chilled-out, melancholy yet blissful vibes that later formed his undisputed masterpiece Play. Since that inescapable album, which seemed to be ever-present in every home at the turn of the century, the temptation to change tack has faded. 18 and Hotel were transparent attempts to copy the formula (the latter majorly unsuccessfully), and over the following years there has been a slight drift away from the soulful gospel and blues samples of Play.
Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt reverses that however. Bringing back the combination of midnight music with his trademark gospel and blues sound, it seems to suffer from what often happens on a return trip to a beautiful location. Time changes everything in this world, and a perfect moment can never be re-captured as it once was. So it is here. Whereas Play balanced its melancholia with an unfailing optimism resulting in tracks of sadness and joy in such equal amounts that they could bring happy tears to the stoniest of faces, this album seems to have been stripped of optimism. Even its title, taken from Kurt Vonnegut’s classic book Slaughterhouse-Five refers to a search for meaning within a greatest fear. Moby has described the album as being based around the brokenness of humanity and a spiritual exploration, and they are both present through many of the sparse lyrics. One glimpse at the song titles reveals a starkly downbeat mindset.
On opener ‘Mere Anarchy’, he sings: “Watch the city fall with eyes so low” while ‘The Waste Of Suns’ contains foreboding talk of dark graves. They are both moody electronic pieces – and still suit the ‘midnight music’ feeling, but they both contain hints of sadness and inner turmoil that make them unlikely to be turned to by many as a post-club listen. There follows a more urgent rendition of the traditional slavery song ‘Like A Motherless Child’, but the wider context here means that it feels like Moby finds himself ripped from a higher power rather than a parent. Musically, it feels stripped back and simpler – the majority of tracks are just built on simple beats with a minimum of flourish. ‘The Last Of Goodbyes’ moves firmly into Play territory with its familiar rhythm and gentle guitar strum, even the vocal effects are reminiscent of that period. Meanwhile, ’The Tired And The Hurt’ is another shadow from the past, but again it feels more mournful than Moby has ever sounded before. It is as if the location has stayed the same over the years, but the character visiting it is the one who has changed and can find no joy there.
As the album continues, there is an over-riding sense of a lost soul searching for meaning. ‘Welcome To Hard Times’ speaks of someone: “Waiting for the silent end, bringing us a faith that’s just so hard” while both ‘The Middle Is Gone’ and ‘This Wild Darkness’ both reveal a Moby that fears that: “I’ll try but I’ll never be free”. Something is very definitely deeper at play here, and it paints a picture of someone struggling to comprehend or accept an end of days approaching – it is obviously hoped that it is a metaphorical theme, or perhaps only one brought on by the troubled times that we live in. Final track ‘A Dark Cloud Is Coming’ offers no resolution, only stating simply: “I called out to you Lord, but you never came”.
As heavy as the themes and lyrics may be, musically it still floats with a lightness of touch that only Moby seems to be able to do. There are elements of trip-hop introduced, and it all builds to a thoroughly absorbing listen – though not one that you should listen to on a long, dark night of the soul as it offers very little in the way of hope. One of Moby’s most interesting albums thematically and musically, but also by far his most oppressive and downbeat. So it goes.