Outside of artists who warrant major radio play, Moby is the guy whose music you’re most familiar with despite owning none of his albums. About a decade ago, the 42 year-old vegan hit techno gold when each of the tracks from his Play album — 18 in total — were licensed for commercial use. Soon enough, his signature sound became ubiquitous: incessant drum beats, spiritual vocal samples and liberal orchestration accompanied ads for golf clubs and sports cars alike. Play went on to sell 10 million copies.
Since then, Moby’s albums have turned into opuses, each one reorganizing his template of instruments in an attempt to discover a new sound. 18 was piano-heavy, resulting in his most viable pop-radio single (“We Are All Made of Stars”) but otherwise retreading the same ground that he’d forged on Play. Then came Hotel — an interminable effort by industry standards, clocking in at two discs and more than two hours — which separated Moby’s vocal songs (disc one) from his instrumentals (disc two). The problem, of course, is that Moby’s best work comes when he mixes instrumentation with vocal samples — so Hotel flopped in both popular and critical circles. (The album’s biggest commercial license was a fitting insult to the work: “Raining Again” was used in The Devil Wears Prada.)
So now, a decade removed from his landmark Play album and coming off the worst CD of his career, Moby returns with Last Night (out today, 4/1). The title is one part merry, one part morose: Moby dedicates the disc to New York, where he’s spent the best last nights of his life, but the title track — a nine-minute closer to the 14-song set — turns the phrase apocalyptic: “If this be my last night on earth/Let me remember this for all that it’s worth.” In the liner notes, Moby expounds on the personal significance of the album: it chronicles all “the sex and the weirdness and the disorientation and the compelling chaos” of a night out in New York. Simply put, it’s an open love letter to the Big Apple; Moby finally feels mature enough to write a dream record for the city that never sleeps.
The best news about the disc is that Moby didn’t overdo it. Last Night lasts only 65 minutes, and it packs twice the melodic mayhem of the bloated Hotel. And instead of crafting too many pure pop songs or pure instrumentals, Moby returns to mixing and matching; Last Night doesn’t have any semblance of a radio-ready single — a welcomed marker that Moby’s back to drawing attention to his music as opposed to drawing attention to himself. His arrangements combine samples and live vocals, like on opener “Ooh Yeah” — where a repeated soundbyte runs beneath dreamy vocals, airy strings and some of Moby’s sharpest synthesizers since his early days as a full-on techno DJ.
That said, the album loses momentum when Moby strays from danceability. Particularly on “Hyenas,” an ill-fitting track that might as well divide the album in two, the decision to infuse an American dance record with French vocals and guitar sludge crafts an unavoidable speed bump in the middle of the album’s first ten songs — the other nine of which are pulsating techno tracks. And the final four tracks, which comprise a full third of the album’s running time, prove too lengthy a buzzkill to a party that was just getting started. (“Last Night,” however, is a beautiful nine-minute dirge that perfectly mimics the sunrise after a long city night; and “Mothers of the Night,” despite its clunky title, sounds like it could be a strong outtake from the 18 sessions.)
That’s not to say the album doesn’t have its moments. “Alice,” the the first single more or less by default, is the closest Moby gets to being anthemic: an overbearing bass line provides the backdrop for high levels of hip-hop paranoia (video below). The pretty electric blips in the midsection of “Living for Tomorrow,” meanwhile, are a testament to Moby’s technical wizardry. And the strongest segment of the album — the three-song string of “I’m in Love,” “Disco Lies” and “The Stars” — achieve what Moby is rarely able to do: they turn samples into storylines. “Disco Lies” in particular perfectly matches the vocal vengeance of a lover scorned with jittery electronic stabs, as if singing the song is killing guest vocalist Shayna Steel. If Moby were to uphold the literary genius of these songs for an entire album, it would be his masterpiece.
As it is, however, Last Night is Moby’s most cohesive effort in years. The metaphor, established by the album cover — where Moby is nowhere to be found — is clear: these songs are meant to personify the New York dance scene, not Moby himself or any sole performer at all. (Twelve different vocalists guest on the album.) And after 65 minutes, you’re left with the distinct notion that this is a guy who’d much rather hear his music in a two-bit club than in a nationwide commercial.