In My Dreams, I'm Dying All The Time - Moby's Play turns 20
I never would have guessed that Moby, born Richard Melville Hall—someone so seemingly unassuming, could be so problematic.
Moby, as a person or a persona, as well as a musician, has always been polarizing—his liberal politics and animal rights activism may be a challenge for some to process, but it’s his musical output over the last 20+ years that makes people feel the most mercurial toward him.
One of the major takeaways from Moby’s first memoir, 2016’s Porcelain, was that he’s a captivating storyteller, but he, like countless other musicians turned memoirists, is not that strong of a writer. Covering a span of 10 years, Porcelain recalled Moby’s meager, early days in New York: his gain in popularity through the growing electronic music scene in the city in the early 1990s, the success he saw following the release of his major label debut Everything is Wrong, the failure he saw after he issued its difficult follow up, Animal Rights, and, among other things, his ongoing struggles with sobriety.
Porcelain concludes abruptly at the beginning of 1999, as Moby wrapped up production on what became Play—the album that would go on to make him a household name.
Due to the nature of his writing—Porcelain was, at the time, a book that I was glad I had read, but had no intention of reading again, and it was quickly filed in a box with other books and CDs to be traded in at a Half Price Books. With that being said, I did not exactly run out and grab a copy of Moby’s latest memoir, Then it Fell Apart, immediately upon its release.
Picking up where Porcelain presumably left off, I get the impression Then It Fell Apart follows Moby’s life from 1999 until 2008: chronicling him through the very, very slow building success of Play as it found is way toward the top of music charts around the world as its content was licensed countless times for film and television, on through to the end of 2008, still unable to account for his sobriety, releasing what he dubbed a ‘love letter’ to the New York club scene of his youth, Last Night.
Press coverage of Then It Fell Apart has, so far, chosen to focus not on Moby’s capabilities as a writer, or the extreme highs and lows of his career, but the salaciousness with which parts of the book is constructed.
One of the other takeaways from Porcelain is that Moby, throughout most of his adult life, is a lothario. Again, he seems so unassuming that his reputation as a pussy hound came as surprise to me three years ago after I finished the book. And with Then It Fell Apart covering the span of time where his stock rose to the highest it ever got, much has been made recently of his recollections of alleged involvement with famous names.
There is a very good possibility the public library in my community will not be adding Then It Fell Apart to their collection, so there is a good possibility that the book will remain on my ‘to read’ list on Goodreads. Containing anecdotes about secretly rubbing his flaccid penis against Donald Trump at some kind of party, or his attempt at attending a meditation retreat hosted by David Lynch but getting distracted by a group of rave kids offering him, among other things, crystal meth, I get the impression that Then It Fell Apart, much like a lot of other memoirs written by musicians or actors, relies heavily on shocking its readers and trying to impress them with regular named dropping.
At a time when Moby should both be celebrating the release of his book, as well as embracing the 20th anniversary of Play, he instead, has found himself raising eyebrows at the inclusion of two specific romantic encounters he features in the book: one with a then 18 year old Natalie Portman, the other with a yet to be discovered Lana Del Rey, at 21, when she was performing under her own name—Lizzy Grant.
Moby, now 53, was in his early 30s and 40s, respectively, at the time of each incident.
Play, in a sense, was almost too big, or too ambitious, to fail.
His fifth full length studio album, he completed it with the intention that it would be his last—after the failure of Animal Rights, and the subsequent run of troubled live performances (playing to near empty rooms, or having things thrown at him while opening for Soundgarden), he figured that his career was over. Play was it—a last ditch effort, and if it didn’t work, he was seriously considering another line of work entirely.
Play eventually worked, but it took time, and a lot of effort behind the scenes to turn it into the cultural zeitgeist it became. It’s a total product of the era—both sonically speaking, as well as with Moby’s heavy emotional baggage weighing it down prior to its release, as well as long after.
Released in May of 1999, the album was more or less well received by critics—at least the critics who, at the time, were willing to give another album by Moby a listen. Given a four out of five star review in Rolling Stone, and a 9 out of 10 in Spin, there were still a handful of media outlets that wanted nothing to do with Moby; listeners felt the same way—the album, worldwide, sold 6,000 copies its first week.
Nobody expected that the music contained on Play would become so ubiquitous, but Moby, as well as his management and label at the time, in an effort to get people to simply hear the music from the album, began licensing the material for use in film and television. Their idea worked, and over the course of less than a year, the record began to attract attention—videos aired on MTV, singles landed in rotation at radio stations, and Play began to sell. Only peaking at 38 on the Billboard 200 album charts in America, it met with surprising success abroad, reaching number one in six countries, eventually going on to move 12 million copies worldwide.
Much has been made of this story—a compelling origin that almost eclipses the album itself; much has also been made out of how Moby’s management was able to successfully license all 18 tracks off of Play, an unprecedented accomplishment.
Much has also been made out of Moby’s liberal sampling of Alan Lomax’s field recordings—some of Play’s most well known material is based around old spirituals or blues songs recorded in the 1959.
The use of these Lomax archival recordings was not something I gave a lot of thought to when I first heard Play, during my junior year in high school. And depending on which single drew you to the album, the samples may have been what caught your attention about the song in the first place. Like the way Kanye West would, only a few years later, make a name for himself by speeding up old R&B and soul samples and incorporating that into one of his beats, the usage of these practically disembodied, at times haunted, voices were incredibly unique for the time, and became his trademark.
It’s difficult to find information about it now—there’s nothing about this on the album’s Wikipedia article, nor in the ‘classic album’ review that Consequence of Sound ran recently about Play, but a little over a year after the record was released, there were some questions about royalties over the songs that used Lomax’s recordings.
Lomax himself, as well as the musicians he recorded, is credited in the album’s liner notes, and the Lomax family are given a ‘special thanks’ as well—but a quick internet search does dig up a very, very old Washington Post piece, from August of 2000, entitled “For Blues Artists, A Sad Refrain.” It discusses the success of the record thanks to its heavy licensing—a Tiger Woods commercial for American Express is how the piece opens—and goes on to allege that Moby and his team did not, at that time, fairly compensate the Lomax estate, or the performers who were directly sampled.
There is also the minor concern over what you could call cultural appropriation—the first voice you hear on the album, shoehorned into a jittery, simple keyboard progression, is that of Bessie Smith—her song “Sometimes” is chopped up and inserted, at times a little too forcefully to totally work, into Play’s opening track, “Honey.”
“Natural Blues,” arguably a more successful single, or at least a more easily identifiable song from Play, features the voice of Vera Hall, singing “Trouble So Hard.”
“Don’t nobody know my troubles but god,” she sings—the original is stark and unaccompanied; Moby’s interpolation fit her voice around an electronica beat and dramatic synthesizers.
What maybe wasn’t really thought about at the time of Play’s release is a question that came to mind right away after I listened to the album, from beginning to end, for the first time in years—was it okay for a white musician to use these black voices, profit off of them, and possibly not compensate either the musicians themselves (if they were still living) or their families?
Has Moby always been problematic?
Elizabeth Grant—the woman who many have come to known as Lana Del Rey, has wisely not responded to the depiction of her time with Moby in Then It Fell Apart. The story he recalls about her involves meeting her in 2006, and taking her back to his lavish New York City apartment.
Prior to sitting down to play him a song, after he explains that it’s on a different floor within his apartment, she tells him that he’s ‘the man.’
He takes it as a compliment at first, but she corrects him—“No, not like that,” Moby writes. “You’re a rich WASP from Connecticut and you live in a five-level penthouse. You’re ‘The Man.’ As in, ‘Stick it to The Man.’ As in the first person they guillotine in the revolution.”
He tries to make a move on her, but she rebuffs him, calling him out as being a lothario; later in the book, he apparently refers to her as someone ‘whom I’d tried dating a couple of years ago.’
It may not come as a surprise to you but Play, despite having moved 12 million copies across the world (how many of those are at your local used CD store, though?) and being lauded by numerous critics upon its release, is far from a perfect album and a large portion of it hasn’t aged all that well.
A number of flaws stick out almost immediately after you revisit it in the context of 2019—not even, like, Moby being problematic 2019, but just, like, thinking about the arranging and the structure of the album.
Yes, it is impressive that each of Play’s 18 tracks was licensed for something—but 18 tracks is a lot of tracks. He did also call Play’s less well-received follow up 18, again, cobbling together 18 songs. However, I would argue that putting his personal behavior aside, 18 is actually a better album—maybe because it didn’t sell as well or wasn’t as revered critically; Play, perhaps, suffers from simply being itself. It was, for the span of almost two years, inescapable in one way or another.
The thing about Play that everyone remembers is the singles—the songs with Alan Lomax’s field recordings of old spirituals or Delta Blues manipulated to fit into Moby’s techno soundscapes. The thing people maybe forget about Play is that within those 18 tracks, not all of them are essential. There is a lot of dead weight—and structurally, the album plays its hand entirely too soon; it’s front loaded with all of its best and most memorable material, saving little, if anything, to note for its latter half, as the pacing slows to a near crawl.
Splitting the album perfectly in half, and beginning with track nine, it finds Moby, perhaps unconsciously, retreating from the boldness of his Lomax sampling, and returning to a place that lies in between the club-ready techno anthems of Everything is Wrong, and the digitized alt-rock angst of Animal Rights. That ninth track, “Machete,” is more or less the space in between his two extremes—structured around a buzzing synthesizer, Moby piles a jittery, slithering rhythm underneath to propel it forward; it’s among the most listenable and interesting of the non-single tracks on Play, even when it spirals into his distorted caterwauls.
“Run On,” built around a sample of “Run On For A Long Time,” performed by Bill Landford and The Landfordaires, repeats the formula Moby used on “Honey,” though here, the tempo is slowed down a bit, and resulting interpolation of The Landfordaires’ voices seems the most forced into its new surroundings of a keyboard plunking and drum machine keeping time.
“Run On” is also the last real burst of energy the album has—its latter half is exponentially less focused and consistent when compared to the earlier part of the album. There’s a number of minute in length segue tracks that bring any momentum the thing had to a screeching halt, and a track like the slow groove focused “If Things Were Perfect,” which is more or less a spoken word piece, with Moby talking over the same bass and drum loop, is relatively pointless.
After another spoken word track—musically it works, but Moby’s never been all that strong of a vocalist (though I still commend him for trying) so his talk-singing fails to connect on “The Sky is Broken”—the album somewhat unceremoniously ends with a swooning instrumental, “My Weakness.”
My wife was, apparently, aware that at some point, Moby was involved with Natalie Portman—a detail of the late 1990s I must have missed. In Then It Fell Apart, he alleges that they met in Texas, after he finished playing a show to an almost (he makes a point of mentioning this) sold out crowd.
He alleges that they dated, or he thought they were ‘dating,’ as she began her time at Harvard in the fall of 1999—“We held hands and wandered around Harvard, kissing under the centuries-old oak trees,” he waxes. “At midnight she brought me to her dorm room and we lay down next to each other on her small bed. After she fell asleep I carefully extracted myself from her arms and took a taxi back to my hotel.”
Portman, however, remembers this differently.
In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar (UK) about something else entirely, Portman begins her conversation talking about the way her time with Moby is depicted in his book. “I was surprised to hear that he characterized the very short time that I knew him as dating because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me when I just had graduated high school,” she said. “He said I was 20; I definitely wasn’t. I was a teenager. I had just turned 18. There was no fact checking from him or his publisher – it almost feels deliberate. That he used this story to sell his book was very disturbing to me. It wasn’t the case. There are many factual errors and inventions. I would have liked him or his publisher to reach out to fact check.”
She continued—“I was a fan and went to one of his shows when I had just graduated. When we met after the show, he said, ‘let’s be friends’. He was on tour and I was working, shooting a film, so we only hung out a handful of times before I realized that this was an older man who was interested in me in a way that felt inappropriate.”
Moby, ever the self deprecator, responded on Instagram by saying that he respected Portman’s possible regret in dating him—adding that he’d probably regret dating himself too. However, he did share a photo of the two of them, presumably taken after that show in Texas—him, shirtless and grinning like a fool; her, looking incredibly young, smiling, wearing a black t-shirt that says ‘Milk Fed’ on it.
The choice of photo doesn’t exactly help him look any better in this situation—as does the caption going along with it, saying he read Portman’s comments in a ‘gossip piece,’ and said that he can’t figure out why she would misrepresent the truth about their brief involvement.
It’s tough to think about Moby, as an artist, in 2019, because of both the career missteps he’s had since Play (there have been a number of them), but also because of how every headline about him recently has been regarding something salacious that he maybe could have just kept to himself rather than including in his memoir.
Play, 20 years down the line, almost works better as an idea than it does as an actual album that you put into your CD player—as a whole, from beginning to end, is rough.
Time may have not been kind to Play, but there are parts of it that still, surprisingly, resonated with me—“Bodyrock” is insipid but fun in moderation; even with the appropriation of Vera Hall, “Natural Blues” still haunts, as does “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?”—that, as well as the sweeping grandeur of the slinking “Rushing,” are the most similar to diverse yet surprisingly cohesive feeling Moby had put together four years earlier on Everything is Wrong.
And “Southside,” even the version without Gwen Steffani’s vocals added into the mix, is still an absolute banger.
The very idea of the album—innovative, sonically, for the time—and the frenzy that eventually caught up to it almost a year later, is still thrilling to think about. But it’s almost too easy to get caught up in that nostalgia, as well as any memories that you closely associate with Play, as well as this era.
It’s fitting that, on the eve of the millennium, an electronic artist was able to transcend his genre and become the unlikeliest of pop stars—taking that pre-2000 tension and turning it into something that became so identifiable to nearly everyone and somewhat comforting to many.