Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Robert Christgau handed out one of his infrequent A+ grades for it. As a matter of commercial and/or marketing enterprise, Play more or less backed into its success, licensing every track, all 18 of them—even "7," the moral equivalent of little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea—for use in movies, television shows, and/or ads for American Express, Bailey's Irish Cream, Maxwell House, Nissan, Nordstrom, Rolling Rock, and Volkswagen. This could well make it literally the greatest sellout of all time. You thought it was inescapable in its time? It was inescapable in its time. Born Richard Melville Hall in Harlem, and raised in Connecticut, Moby is a several-generations-removed nephew of Herman Melville, hence the enduring nickname. And as long as we're inflating terms of comparison with 19th-century referents, let's take a moment to remember the note that Ralph Waldo Emerson sent to Walt Whitman on the publication of the first batch of poems that would become Leaves of Grass when Whitman was already pushing 40: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion." This particular white whale was closer to 35 than 25 when Play came out, with five albums already under his belt (some, such as Everything Is Wrong, very good) along with a ton of studio, production, and soundtrack work. To me, now, Play sounds more like an intensely likeable piece of journeyman work than any kind of breakthrough, iconoclastic or otherwise—it's a consolidation of victories won elsewhere. Its chief pleasures—the insinuating beats, dramatic studio textures, and especially the soaring melodies, much of it shrewdly sourced one way or another to roots gospel music from the '20s and '30s—are not anything particularly new for Moby. He had been working these 40 acres for the better part of the decade. So I liked Play a lot for a year or two, went to see the show on a road trip to Minneapolis and sweated and danced and hollered, and then basically put it away and never took it out again, even as his follow-up releases won my interest fleetingly, but never deeply or for long. If you haven't heard Play, you should. But you probably have and know already exactly how you feel about it.