Pop Populist

Some artists rise to the top through careful machinations and sex. Others take great pride in infiltrating the machine, then using it to their own end. Only a few, however, manage to find their inner muse, follow it and wind up at the top of the heap.

Moby is one of the few. He first emerged as a solo artist in the late 1980s, dropping singles into a primordial rave scene, which would later claim them as staples. Among these tunes was "Go," which not only sold more than a million copies but was named by Rolling Stone as one of the top 200 records of all time. By 1995, the summer of which he spent on the Lollapalooza tour supporting his major-label debut, Everything Is Wrong, Moby had already become an icon in the electronic music scene. What's more, name recognition was starting to spread. General listeners might not have been able to hum along to any of his "hits," but almost everybody knew the name and was at least vaguely aware that Moby was "that guy who made techno."

But even then, and certainly since, this general conception of Moby was too narrow to encompass what he was really up to. Everything Is Wrong jumped from house and jungle to rock and thrash, sometimes within a single track. Its 1996 follow-up, Animal Rights, was a guitar-driven affair that had the generally young-white-and-male press lathering at the thought that maybe Moby had talent after all. Along the way the performer remixed for everyone from Orbital to Aerosmith to Michael Jackson, and produced Ozzy Osbourne and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

Moby seems to have found a way to escape the art-versus-commerce conundrum. He makes the art, and the commerce comes calling. "Oh, trust me, I've made lots of art-versus-commerce compromises," Moby says. "The one thing that I'm unwilling to make compromises on is the artistic process. When it comes to making records, I don't compromise at all. But when it comes to ways of making that record have the life that it has in the commercial, corporate world we live in, I'm willing to make lots of compromises."

Radio show concerts, television gigs, movie soundtracks, commercials and appearances on MTV awards shows are all fair game as marketing tools, Moby says, "because I've made a record I'm proud of, and I want people to hear it."

The current record in question is Play, a blending of Moby's initial modern dance sensibilities with hip-hop and African-American folk music. Released last year, the album has received nearly universal praise, almost all of it deserved (despite being four slow/ambient songs too long). Moby both produced the record and played every instrument on it, proving himself to be a stylist of some note; textures range from soft acoustic lines to Jimmy Page-like riffing to Brit-pop noodling.

Purity, for Moby, is a virtue. It's evident throughout the CD. The rhythms of songs are never-bending and timeless. Similarly fundamental are the lyrical themes. "Find My Baby" is the male-voiced counterpoint to the female yearning of "Honey"; "Porcelain" is the sound of bittersweet breakup; and "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?" the postscript lament. Part of what makes these recordings so human and organic is the samples -- African-American field songs. Moby credits music historian Alan Lomax (who, along with his father, John Lomax, amassed a large collection of folk recordings) with inspiring his work. "When I first heard these recordings, I was so moved by them," Moby says. "These vocals became the starting point for the album."

Which doesn't mean there's no field-recording-free material on Play. "South Side" is groovy dub rock, while "Bodyrock" is rap-disco at its best, and "Machete" is contemporary electronica. The sampleless track that stands out most is "Everloving," which begins with a simple finger-plucked acoustic guitar line over a distant electronic hum. Before long, piano, bass and drums kick in and push the song to a climax that gently recedes in a couple of minutes.

"With all the music I make, I just want it to have hopefully an emotional quality that appeals to me, that might appeal to other people," Moby says. "Although I tend to be a little bit analytical, I don't tend to be analytical when it comes to music. I just throw myself into it, and what comes out comes out."

Such a declared lack of intent, not to mention a career built on genre hopping, is consistent with a man who has written liner note essays on the evils of fundamentalism. Systems fail, according to Moby, in that they "try to impose a rigid structure on what is an inherently ambiguous world." We should try to understand things, he preaches. But we should also bear in mind how much we simply will never understand. Along the way, we should give the people what they want.

"I'm a populist," he says. "And when I play live, I want to play songs that people want to hear. By the time you're on stage and people are watching you, they've already bought their ticket, so you can either sit down and be very self-indulgent or play songs they want to hear. And I just remember, from all the concerts I've been to in my life, I just get really exasperated when musicians and bands don't play the songs that I want to hear. I didn't pay to watch people indulge themselves for two hours."

Funny, but artists who follow their muse nearly always tend to lose audiences -- unless pleasing people is the muse's order.