Moby’s Play was certainly one of the best albums of its year but it was also one of the worst years for music in nearly a decade. That fact, coupled with Moby’s unapologetic corporate peddling, made for a distanced—if not wholly cynical—view of the electronica pioneer’s rise from the underground. His ability to brand the mainstream consciousness with his image could be the savviest example of self-promotion since Madonna’s reign in the mid-‘80s. One can’t help but feel that the hype might have eclipsed the art. With the follow-up to the double-platinum Play on the hit-deprived horizon, the question loomed large: would Moby consciously stick to his hit-proven formula or would he evolve like he had with each of his previous albums? The answer, it seems, is unequivocally ambiguous. Songs like “In This World” and “One Of These Mornings” reprise Play‘s mix of piano chords, synth-strings and old soul samples (often, traces of the samples’ original instrumentation bleed through to amazing effect). Moby, invariably glued to his keyboard, pounds out somniferous melody after melody, from the urgent “In My Heart” to the stirring “Sunday (The Day Before My Birthday),” featuring the Shining Light Gospel Choir and ‘70s soul singer Sylvia Robinson, respectively. But only with the deep house of “Another Woman” does he take the formula to the next level (or, at least, a different one). The track is dirtier than anything on Play, mixing off-beat percussion with a hip-swiveling bassline.
Moby does, however, break out some new tricks: the hip-hop-skewed “Jam For The Ladies” features Angie Stone and MC Lyte (you’ll forgive the song’s title once you hear its grinding beat and retro synths), while “The Great Escape,” a minimalist mix of strings and striking harmonies courtesy of Azure Ray, evokes the image of two college students (one with a keyboard and one with a mic) intimately recording in a bedroom. Moby calls on new wavy Euro-pop for “Signs Of Love” and the album’s first single, “We Are All Made Of Stars.” Both tracks infuse electric guitar riffs with processed vocals and midtempo grooves reminiscent of mid-‘90s pop hits like Whitetown’s “Your Woman” and Primitive Radio Gods’ “Standing Outside A Broken Phonebooth With Money In My Hand.” But the musical path Moby treads with the softly melancholic 18 is often all-too-safe and familiar, and it’s significantly less cohesive than Play or Everything Is Wrong. Perhaps 18 should have been called 13 and ended with the eerie yet comforting sentiments of “Sleep Alone.” The standout track, ripe with spacey bleeps and dubby reverb, references 9/11 in its morbid hook: “A city once filled with people is now desolate…At least we were together holding hands/Flying through the sky.”