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18 Review

by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

In one of the two essays in the liner notes for 18, Moby alludes to his past as a "rigid" idealist about life and music, expressing that he's tried to open himself and hoping that he's succeeded. In a way, he already succeeded with his previous album, Play, a remarkable record that cannily used field recordings and blues as the basis for an expert set of modern electronica -- through repeated exposure (every song was licensed for a commercial or a movie) and sheer hard work, it became a massive hit, unlike most albums in its genre, establishing Moby as one of the few electronica superstars. It also gave him the freedom to make a record as meditative and assured as 18, a quietly seductive set that capitalizes on his status as a star in the sense that he takes complete freedom to make music that isn't necessarily hip. Essentially, this is a lateral move away from Play, abandoning its attention-grabbing musical thesis of turning the past into the present -- there are still hints of roots music, yet they're usually telegraphed through soulful vocals that have always been a staple of house and dance music -- and returning to his bedrock of dance and electronic music, yet presented with the skill he illustrated on Play, a new open-heartedness and, yes, a maturity previously unheard in his music. Maturity is often seen as a death-knell criticism, especially in a perpetually fashion-conscious genre like electronica, but this is only a good thing here, because it means that Moby not only creates a shimmering, reflective mood from the outset, but that he sustains it throughout the 18 songs, as the album shifts from pop and soul songs to soaring instrumental stretches, letting the sound deepen and change colors with each new track. Cynics could snipe and say this is coffeehouse, yuppie electronica or claim that he's done nothing new with this record, and they'd be right only in the coldest, literal sense that it would appeal to upscale urban listeners and that he's not really breaking new ground, only consolidating his strengths. Yet that is no small thing -- he has created a record that might not be as wildly eclectic on the surface as Play, and it certainly lacks club hits on the level of "Bodyrock" or "South Side," but it's a warm, enveloping, humanistic record with real emotional resonance, which surely is a noteworthy artistic step forward.

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