20 years on, Moby’s Play feels out of place in today’s contemporary pop discourse
Original release date: 17 May, 1999
Label: Mute / Virgin
In the summer of 2000, I borrowed my dad’s credit card and ordered three CDs from Play.com – the first music I’d ever bought on the internet. I still remember opening the Jiffy bag to reveal Craig David’s Born to Do It, Coldplay’s Parachutes and Moby’s Play. Three very different records, all huge commercial successes – specifically, crossover hits from the worlds of UK garage, indie rock and techno. Play was universally adored, statistically speaking. Certified platinum in over 20 countries, it remains the biggest selling “electronica” album of all time.
Critics praised it too, though over time it has become an album we love to hate. There are probably three or four reasons for that, and several are legitimate. Fact is, there’s a lot to enjoy about this pompous, sentimental, overlong album and its postmodern melange of techno, ambient and rootsy blues, all callously thrown together with the arrogance of a man who thought he was making his final record and accompanied by a set of preachy essays about veganism, fundamentalism and drugs. Yes, Play is an easy target for your snark. But let’s acknowledge its lightweight charms.
There’s the distinct album-within-an-album structure, in which a separate narrative of bruised introspection emerges from finger-picked guitars, foggy drums and mumbled poetry. Starting from Down Slow – once the record’s eight hit singles are out of the way – Play gets loose and hypnotic, even hypnagogic. In the first few years of the millennium, I would stick on Play as I went to sleep, trying to count the separate instruments in each track like sheep jumping over a gate. Still awake by Everloving and it’s been a bad night – but those were the times when I almost grasped the longing within The Sky Is Broken, a whispered poem for “the darkness before the dawn,” with its synthetic strings reaching feebly towards a climax. My Weakness, the closing track, sounded near-mystical then and still does an ineffable something-or-other to me, with its flickering image of a choir tangled up in those plastic strings.
As for the first half, and those hit singles – that’s the album you think you remember. When Play came out in 1999 it tanked, only managing five weeks at the bottom end of the UK albums chart between May and December. So Moby did something that would become Play’s epitaph: he sold out. Every single track on the album was licensed for commercial use – though mostly for stuff like TV soundbeds rather than branded ads – slowly lifting the album to No. 1 in April 2000. If selling out damaged the former techno-punk’s credibility, he was just the canary in the coal mine. Twenty years later, sync deals are a life raft for struggling independent acts.
“Moby did something that would become Play’s epitaph: he sold out”
What seemed crassly commercial then has been normalised now. The opposite is true of Play’s other serious crime. Contemporary pop discourse is practically defined by issues of identity and appropriation, and if Play came out today, it’d be torn to shreds for its arrogant instrumentalisation of black voices, whose time-worn harmonies are used to signify a kind of authentic pain. These samples came from the famous collection of field recordings made in the 1930s by the ethnographer Alan Lomax. More specifically, they came from a CD box set loaned to a then-down-and-out Moby by his friend Gregor. As Gregor told it on the ersatz-therapy podcast Heavyweight two years ago, Moby didn’t even give him the damn CDs back.
Since 1999, our ideas about ownership and attribution have changed dramatically. “Selling out” is almost meaningless. We rarely attach moral weight to owning music anymore (even borrowed CDs). We listen on different terms. And 20 years on, it’s those ghostly voices that make me most uncomfortable. I offer you this, though: the album starts on track 12.