Monday, 22 October 2007

Top 100 Albums - #61: Hotel (2005)

Moby's only effort to make the countdown is Hotel, a loose concept album and his most recent offering.Moby's musical career can be loosely divided into three periods. The first period - the long years of obscurity - began in the punk of The Vatican Commandos in the early-1980s, leading to his involvement in house, drum'n'bass and finally electronica. The second period - the forgotten albums - kicks off with the release of 'Go' (a Top 10 hit in 1991) , his signing to Mute Records and the release of albums like Everything Is Wrong (1995) which received critical acclaim but little in the way of sales. The third period - the years of rapid fame - saw the release of Play (1999) and its follow-up 18 (2002), which established Moby as a pioneer in mainstream electronica and made him a global superstar. These albums saw the consolidation of Moby's trademark use of sampling and blues riffs to create truly memorable soundscapes.

Hotel is a departure from the start, being a concept album; whilst before fans relied on Moby's sleeve notes to gain an insight into his workings, here the unified structure of the songs around a theme - what hotels symbolise in the modern world - provide a way into that intelligence. It opens with, unsurprisingly, 'Hotel Intro'. At once the familiar motifs of Moby's work are apparent - the use of a simple riff as a base, the slow layering in of instruments as diverse as violins and drum machines. This creates a great opening feel to the album, introducing you to the comtemplative mood of the album.

When I say 'contemplative', that is not to say that there are up-tempo moments. 'Raining Again' is one of them. Although the lyrics don't make the most sense in the world, the mood of piece is enough to carry it. Whereas the last track tended toward ambient music - of the kind you might here in hotels - this is a more danceable, electronica number.

'Beautiful' continues the genre-hopping, utilising the brash guitars to create a rock feel. Sadly, however, this is an otherwise empty track. The riffs and hooks are there, but there is no substance to the lyrics beyond that found in a vacuous pop song (e.g. Hanson, say) - and that is not the standard which Moby fans have come to expect. Thank goodness, then, that 'Lift Me Up' is a cracker. This combines the fake violin keyboards of some things off Play, overlays them with some decent drums and catchy lyrics. This is an infectious, highly danceable song, which showcases Moby's range as both a composer and a singer. It's one of his greatest tracks.

'Where You End' is the first real song on the album to bring out the themes of the album. The lyrics, especially in the chorus, speak of relationships and the fleeting nature of humanity:

If I could kiss you now
Oh, I could kiss you now again and again
'Til I don't know where I begin
And where you end

The fade-out is taken straight from 'We Are All Made Of Stars' - his hit single from 18 - and the whole product is very touching.

'Temptation' is a cover of the New Order song, and is sung by singer-songwriter and political activist Laura Dawn. Unlike the trashy, Hacienda original, this is done down-tempo, sung sultrily by Dawn and backed by soft and elegant strings. Normally speaking, because this is a dance song, it doesn't really matter about the speed at which you play it, it will be pretty hollow and meaningless. But choosing to do it as this speed has managed to flesh out Bernard Sumner's (albeit dodgy) lyrics and if nothing else it compliments the pace and feel of the rest of the album.

With 'Spiders', Moby tries to tease the listener with a series of off-set phrases which then give way to his flat-ish delivery. This is a weird track, a song which tires to be a rocker while maintaining its electro-pop roots. Again, the lyrics are very vacuous, but again the sonic washes are enough to make you at best like this track without caring and at worst ignore them.

'Dream About Me' is another showcase for Dawn, and another repetitive, slow-beat dance song. Dawn's delivery is breathy and distracting, like she's trying to emulate Imogen Heap but coming across like someone who's just run a half-marathon. Nevertheless, the 'background noise' which Moby layers in once more provides the necessary cushion.

'Very', however, is a step too far. Dawn is fuller here, which is a relief. The trouble is that the multiple drum machines plastered over the mix reduce this attempt at music to a humdrum disco tune, the sort of tune you'd drink lager to in a crowded club without paying it a second thought. Not the sort of music that belongs on a Moby album.

As Graham Chapman said, "now for a complete change of mood". 'I Like It' is a sultry, faintly erotic song. With its siren song in the background and the breathy duet of Moby and Dawn, it's incredibly arousing, especially in the final third. This is the kind of song whose feel and (blatent) lyrics) puts pictures in your head - perhaps the rose-petal scene in American Beauty (1999)? Dawn is on top form, and Moby's contribution is very reasonable, if only because he is able to restrain the excessive instrumentation of the previous track.

Apart from 'Lift Me Up', 'Love Should' is the only truly brilliant track on this album. Like '18' before it, it's a poignant, piano-heavy track whose production is lush. It starts with a sparse click before the rich chords blend in seamlessly. Moby's classic monotone doesn't grate here, on the contrary, it brings out the emotion of the lyrics. Again, these are simplistic - I know how it rains/ I know how it pours/ I never could feel this way/ For anyone but you - but they do their job without overstaying their welcome.

'Slipping Away' has a similar opening to 'Dream About Me'. In fact, it's similar in many ways to its predecessor. But Moby is not in a holding pattern. It's another bright, generally melodious song, with the hooks being provided by the vocals in true electronica style. 'Forever', however, is another one of these wierd, ambient-esque tracks which the texture of the tracks is so flat as to allow Moby to let himself slide with the lyrics. Few of them are genuinely engaging, it has to be said.

'Homeward Angel' is an instrumental which opens with some interesting use of clicks and echoes, of what sounds like a squash court. Over this is planted some simple keyboards to create a calming feel. In terms of sound, it's not quite ethereal by any standards, but it's as close as Moby has come on this album. The closer, meanwhile - the hidden track, '35 Minutes' - begins like Samuel Barber's 'Adagio for Strings' played on a keyboard, somewhere between the original composition and William Orbit's pop-hungry meddling. It's a sweet, balletical kind of a piece, perhaps what you would hear if you played an ambient album by Brian Eno though a pair of Marshall Stacks with the volume on max.

Most of the critics in the music world ravaged Hotel upon its release. The kindest word it got was when Rolling Stone described it as "a sensible way to come down from a multi-platinum high."¹ And that's the point. The critics saw this album in a bad light because its true predeccesors were such big commercial successes - and if anything is true in the music business, it is that commercial success and critical acclaim are often completely unrelated entities. True, the concept is often lost in the slightly more clich├ęd elements of the record. But, on the other hand, it remains a deeply personal record. Because Moby is so open about his political and religious views, the whole experience is rendered a little hollow. But if anything this album and its themes adds a new dimension to the thinking person's DJ.
3.80 out of 5
¹ Christian Hoard, 'Moby: Hotel', Accessed on November 6 2007.

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