Sunday, October 20, 2013

In-flight entertainment - Moby's Innocents

It's all about location, location, location, baby. So consider this: I'm on a packed-to-the-gills El Al flight between Paris and Tel Aviv.

To my left, a mother and her screaming infant, ejecting dummies and other items into the aisle for the flight's five-hour duration.

To my right, another mother and baby, which the airline have very considerately separated from her husband and daughter, who are in the row behind me, with the gap between my headrest and hers now becoming a veritable Suez Canal for a variety of paediatric commodities.

In front of us, a venerable lady, done up to the nines, is wearing a sequinned sweater that is surreally creating a mirrorball effect in the cabin. With the fidgeting in my immediate proximity not so much affecting my well-intentioned stoicism as asking it outside for a fight, malignant, Jeremy Clarkson-esque thoughts about alternative uses for the overhead lockers begin to assemble in my mind.

Lucky, then, that I have with me Innocents, the 11th studio album by Moby. After experiments in more acoustic and rocky directions, the former Richard Melville Hall has returned to the ambient soul that, via the zillion-selling Play, turned the DJ into the world’s most licensed musician, with half of that album ending up on advertising campaigns, and the 9/11-inspired Extreme Ways, from the follow-up 18, being anointed as the theme song for the Jason Bourne film franchise.

Innocents comes along as the 47-year-old undergoes a minor seismic shift in life, moving from his beloved New York, and the bedroom studio that has spawned much of his output hitherto, and a new life in Los Angeles. "Living in LA, certainly inspired the making of this record and the music," Moby says.

"In New York, I’d work in my cloistered studio in a big apartment building, surrounded by thousands of other apartment buildings and people everywhere. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, you can be in the middle of an urban area of fifteen million people and still feel isolated, like you’re living in the country." And is if to prove the point of living in a city that sits between the Pacific and a desert, the musician is having to get used to an environment with its own distinct fauna, such as the rattlesnake he reported coming home to recently on Facebook.

Innocents is a studio album composed, clearly, by a consume studio-dweller. And with a music industry that Moby has, incredibly, been active in since teenagehood, becoming ever more fragmented and diluted by the post-rock age, he really has become the ultimate bedroom recording artist, seemingly making music for fun.

“I guess I just accept that the music business has fallen apart,” Moby says. "That demise means that, as a 47-year-old musician, when I make a record, it’s simply because I love making records – I don’t expect commercial success. there’s no reason to second guess whether something’s going to sell well, or if a radio programmer is going to like it – so I can just make the record I want to make."

A tad self-depreciating, methinks, as Innocents is highly radio-friendly and extremely accessible. In his own words, it's "a lo-fi, idiosyncratic, emotional, melodic record", an outcome that has a lot to do with the involvement of the somewhat omnipresent producer Mark 'Spike' Stent, whose CV includes turns with Madonna, Lady Gaga, BeyoncĂ©, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Muse and Goldfrapp.

Rough round the edges, Innocents may have been intended to be, but from the outset there is a Mobylicious familiarity about Everything That Rises, with that 'Sweeping Strings' keyboard pad (John Shuttleworth – we salute ya!) washing over the eardrums like waves lapping a tropical beach at eventide, chords gently evolving as the rhythm track gradually builds over them.

Bedroom fun: the Moby home studio in LA

Throughout the record there are plenty of signature touches, such as samples of spirituals and the "gothic blues", but with Moby not possessing one of music's strongest voices, there's a notable uptick in the number of guest vocals on the album. "It’s my most collaborative record,” says Moby himself, describing the album's guest roster as "the disparate random bunch of people I’ve collaborated with."

Thus, A Case For Shame delves into downbeat soul, with its reverb-drenched drum machine exchanging spaces with a grand piano and singer-songwriter Cold Specks, whose Lana Del Ray-ish drawl adds a eeriness to this and the later track, Tell Me. The Canadian vocalist's presence on Innocents is the result of a recommendation over lunch by Mute Records' founder Daniel Miller. "The moment i heard her voice," Moby has said, "I was amazed by the challenging, idiosyncratic way that she approaches harmony, melody and phrasing. it’s like gothic blues, but combined with an avant-garde, intentional dissonance." Indeed.

The Last Day puts into practice the ear-lickingly breathy vocals of Skylar Gray (better known for co-writing Eminem and Rihanna’s Love the Way You Lie) adding brilliantly to the song's apocalyptic tone with the sort of dark balladry that wouldn't be out of place on a David Lynch soundtrack.

On Don't Love Me, Inyang Bassey - one of Moby's touring singers who also lent her rich vocal chords to Innocents' unsatisfying predecessor, Destroyed - adds an eery soulfulness not dissimilar to the spiritual samples that provided Play with its memorable idiosyncrasy.

Perhaps the most unexpected guest appearance on Innocents is that by The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, who adds a throaty folkiness to the joyously happy-clappy On The Perfect Life, one of those "It's good to be alive" numbers - not far removed from Elbow's One Day Like This - that you'd have to have a hard-boiled heart not to enjoy. The irony, however, is that it's a song about a prolonged suicide. Lovely.

The guest male vocals keep on coming, with Seattle's Damien Jurado applying his indie-based falsetto to Almost Home, a warm, Californian sunset of a song, while on The Lonely Night features the lugubrious croon of Mark Lanegan, another Pacific Northwesterner and veteran of the original grunge community that produced Nirvana. Here, Moby's lo-fi intentions become a little clearer, along with another heavy slice of noirish melodrama.

There is a notion that ambient music, and even ambient dance music is, by nature, downbeat. Moby makes no effort to disguise the darkness of some parts of Innocents, with its uneven edges designed deliberately to evoke the authenticity of old-school recording (and certainly before the horror of AutoTune). The result, however, is his most enjoyable album since Play, and drawing on the sort of cinematic light and shade of his brilliant cover of Joy Division's New Dawn Fades on the soundtrack of Michael Mann's Heat.

Heat, you'll recall, was a typical Mann depiction of the City of Angels, a city of sometimes nonsensical contrasts: Beverly Hills looking out over South Central; the hedonism of beach life nestling amongst lost dreams, opulence and poverty, side by side. In moving his bedroom studio four and half thousand miles south-west to be a part of LA, Moby has tapped into an environment that has inspired plenty of songwriters in the past, and in the process, produced something that reflects, rather than reports, on its light and shade. And the result is very satisfying indeed.

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