It’s never been easy to make something new. Inspiration strikes; insight occurs; shit happens. The American electronic musician Richard Melville Hall, better known by the stage name Moby—yes, he’s related to Herman Melville—has always seemed a good example of that particular creative struggle. He’s spent the past three decades toiling away in the studio, making sure the conditions are right to bottle lightning in a Leyden jar, but it hasn’t always paid off. More than anything, the creative process operates at the level of faith and ritual, as a kind of prayer: Sometimes the void hears and answers, but more often the artist is left alone with his or her thoughts.
Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt, Moby’s 15th studio album, sounds like the product of hours spent in fruitless supplication. It’s obvious that he took his time with the album, but musically, it feels teleported directly from 1999, the year that Moby’s breakthrough, Play, was released. That record, Moby’s fifth, came after a string of buzzy triumphs (Moby, 1992; Everything Is Wrong, 1995) and fan-base-alienating flops (1996’s Animal Rights). Play would become Moby’s calling card, the work that cemented his status as the savior of American electronic music; it was also one of the first albums ever to be licensed in its entirety, with its songs appearing in commercials, TV shows, and films. It turned Moby into an overnight pop sensation.
What drew listeners to Play was its amalgamation of sounds and styles that encapsulated trip-hop, which at the time was ascendant. Built around a series of field hollers sampled from an Alan Lomax box set, Sounds of the South, the album featured Moby’s moody electronic noodling over brooding beats. The result was textured, stuccoed, more architectural than sculptural. This approach worked on “Porcelain,” which could be heard in cocktail bars around the world and didn’t suffer from extensive sampling, but not so much on other cuts from the album. On “Honey,” a single that samples the singer Bessie Jones’s “Sometimes,” it feels like Jones’s art is carrying Moby’s; the juxtaposition is productive and not quite appropriative, but Moby’s electronic production is constantly fading into the background. The same thing happens on “Natural Blues,” another massively popular single. Moby sampled the blues singer Vera Hall’s “Trouble So Hard” and set it to relatively eclectic percussion and a propulsive piano line, which thankfully doesn’t lessen the power of Hall’s voice, though it can’t enhance it much, either.
The samples that Play’s songs are built around came from a place of authentic lived experience; in the cases of “Honey” and “Natural Blues,” both women were born black in 1902—into a world of segregation and outright discrimination. What the samples obscure are their biographies, the lives they went on to live after Lomax captured their singing for the Library of Congress, and the real power of their words. There have been many books written about the white pursuit of musical authenticity through black musicians, but a recent favorite, Hari Kunzru’s ghost story White Tears, puts the dilemma best. “On your record deck, you played the sound of the middle passage, the blackest sound. You wanted the suffering you didn’t have, the authority you thought it would bring,” Kunzru’s protagonist offers. “I never wanted the authority of suffering—I suspected it would have a bitter taste.” This is something that Play doesn’t quite understand; it doesn’t get that pastiche is not at all equivalent to real feeling.