It’s been a long decade since Moby nailed the zeitgeist with “Play,” a song collection that circles back to the producer-songwriter’s electronica roots while folding in a kitchen’s sink worth of textures (smooth, silky, grainy, distorted, chopped and screwed) with bits of gospel, blues, rock and a huge helping of hard-edged techno. Hardcore snobs in the dance scene smelled a sellout but couldn’t resist the beats or the mash-up. Consumers looking for the next catchy thing voted with their wallets. “Play” became an unlikely platinum smash and is probably the only Moby in most people’s music stash.
And good for him. The little bald dude has always been a willfully perverse artist, ever since he was a meddling DJ who spunked up “Laura’s Theme” from the soundtrack to David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” and transformed it into the all-time rave anthem, “Go,” nearly 20 years ago. Four years before “Play,” when there was ample buzz behind his music and he seemed perched for a commercial breakthrough, he radically departed form for a hard-rock record entitled “Animal Rights,” in keeping with his staunch vegan politics. That outsized compassion has been a consistent trademark, and distinguished him from many of his robotic peers in the late 20th-century dance scene: He was as transparent with his emotions as he was with his opinions.
Of course that, too, has its drawbacks. “Animal Rights” was amateurishly self-indulgent as well as brave and honest, and the four records Moby has cut since “Play,” have been, ah, uneven. The latest, “Wait For Me,” contains beautifully laundered mixes and depressing, downcast sentiments. On “Mistake,” Moby’s lone vocal on the disc (the others are handled by an assortment of female singers), he pleads, “Don’t leave me again,” as a barren soundscape pans past. Yes, there is a trademark boffo finale, but the dominant impressions on both the song and the record are dour and vulnerable.
That’s what makes his current tour, which stops at the Fine Line Thursday night, so intriguing. Apparently Moby is emphasizing two of the eleven records in his catalog — “Play” and the new one, with a few dollops of “18.” Not surprisingly, reviewers have noted that there is a stop-and-start quality to the crowd’s momentum, as they fling themselves into “Bodyrock” and other dance classics from “Play,” and are then confronted by “Mistake” or a similarly dark-hued nugget from “Wait for Me.” Even the cover tunes have this dichotomy: The lugubrious yet anthemic rock of Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades” (which is on the “Heat” soundtrack), and Neil Young’s aptly titled ballad, “Helpless.”
The opening act, Kelli Scar, handles “Wait for Me”‘s female vocals and keyboards. Other women play violin and bass, with Moby shifting to electric guitar, piano and percussion. If you’re a fan of “Play,” hearing live versions in an intimate venue like the Fine Line is plenty attractive. And if you have some affection for the unfiltered nature of Moby’s artistry — even amid the well-manicured mixes he fashions — the tunes from “Wait for Me” beckon. Naturally, at least in Toronto on Monday night, he did one of those new songs, “Pale Horses,” twice.
Moby at the Fine Line Music Cafe (moved from Myth), Thursday, Oct. 1, all ages early show at 6:30 p.m.; tickets $30 in advance, $33 at the door.