Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

For all his solemn, gauzy musings on the fragile state of the human spirit, Moby, for the past three years, has nevertheless provided a slick, manipulative soundtrack to our SUV and sneaker fantasies. The pale, scrawny imp may indeed have humanitarian notions floating around in that bald head of his—I mean, he is a vegan, after all—but the oddball DJ-turned-MTV-hero also has some definite $$ blinking in those beady eyes. He licensed out every one of the 18 songs on Play, his 1999 multiplatinum melange of blues- and gospel-tinged techno, rump-shaking pop, and ethereal wanderings. And it’s damn tough healing the world, or at least convincing people you’re trying to, when you’re simultaneously shilling for Nissan and Adidas. Fatboy Slim, a similar record-junkie mix-and-matcher with a taste for dance-floor beats and quirky samples, may be popular on the frat-boy circuit (not to mention a frequent contributor to high-end commercials), but at least he’s not hypocritical about his goofy, good-time role. Moby, on the other hand, is a sellout who desperately wants to be a saint.

Of course, when Play was first released, no one knew the impact it would have on our collective materialistic leanings. With its elegant, eclectic mix of genres and tempos, as well as its blending of ages-old music with the newest of sounds, the album managed to keep the listener off balance but be utterly infectious at the same time. Play was also threaded with a likable puckish streak—”South Side,” the goth-pop duet with Gwen Stefani; the club-burning “Bodyrock”; and the acid-house rag of “Honey” being highlights. And as track after track was handed over to Corporate America and Play’s cumulative emotional punch was weakened by dubious overexposure, that playfulness became crucial to the album’s durability as a fine party platter, if nothing else. After all, a DJ’s job is to get, and keep, the party going, and Moby, moola-grubber or not, has a knack for entertaining.

But on the new 18, Moby (aka Richard Melville Hall, whose great-great-granduncle, he claims, was Herman Melville—hence the curious stage name) is looking to bum us out a bit, exploring the themes of isolation and independence—and the blurry line in between. The recipe is still basically the same as Play’s, but the ingredients have been slightly altered. A lot of those funked-up beats have been replaced with spacey, go-nowhere synthscapes. He’s ditched the blues samples and skipped ahead a few years to snippets of soul. Moby’s penchant for offbeat hooks—both borrowed and baked fresh—has mellowed some. He’s singing a lot more now—well, at least talking quite nicely. As for that underlying whimsical vibe he threaded through his previous effort, well, let’s just say that playtime is, for the most part, over.

18—named for its number of tracks—is lovely and lusciously layered; Moby has an innate ability to know exactly what goes where. For all its beauty and unique spare parts, however, a lot of this stuff is simply starting to sound the same. But the album’s most glaring problem is that you don’t so much focus on the music as wonder which track will eventually go with which product. “In This World,” with R&B singer Jennifer Price hollering, “Lordy don’t leave me/All by myself” over pounding piano and steady cymbals, would be perfect for, say, a Cellular One spot, with a smartly togged businesswoman stranded on the side of the road with nothing but her trusty phone. “In My Heart,” featuring the Shining Light Gospel Choir and swooning strings, is definitely destined for those creepy, cloying Zales diamond-ring ads. And “One of These Mornings”—about slogging through the perils of the a.m.—that’s gotta be for Folgers, right?

OK, maybe that’s not being totally fair, but Moby certainly has it coming. And it’s not as though 18 is totally devoid of transcendent moments. First single and opening track “We Are All Made of Stars,” built on a thudding, slightly ominous midtempo beat and thick New Wave-y keybs, sounds like an impromptu jam session at a Thompson Twins-Alan Parsons Project picnic. (And you gotta love the video, which stars, among other fallen Angelenos, Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman lip-synching and trying to look cool.) “Another Woman,” fortified with a fuzzed-out bass line and a weepy sample from Barbara Lynn’s “I’m a Good Woman,” and “Jam for the Ladies,” featuring badass ‘tude from Angie Stone and MC Lyte, are gonna be girls’ night out staples—female empowerment you can shake ya booty to—and dutifully give 18 its biggest boosts of much-needed energy.

And speaking of fallen celebs, 18’s most moving moment comes courtesy of that notorious pope-ripper, Sinead O’Connor. On “Harbour,” the wounded chanteuse with the honey-coated soprano pipes wanders around an unnamed city, lamenting, “The street bears no release/When everybody’s fighting.” Her echoing vocals are sweetly understated, and so is Moby’s slow, sad ambient accompaniment, especially the gorgeous guitar part, which curls around the singer’s soaring insistence that “My heart is full.” “Harbour” is sincere and heartbreaking, a sign that maybe Moby isn’t in it just for the cheddar, after all. Then again, what better way to get out of a troubled city than in a brand-new Lexus? CP