The Sound of Omnipotence

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Something for everyone: Moby

How many cultural figures of the past decade have been simultaneously cutting edge and mainstream? Quentin Tarantino had a moment in 1994, but that's all it was. Moby, however, is three years into his ride as the king of both hip and heartland. He's a dance musician who plays rock songs, a devout Christian who hates religious fervor, a scrawny bald guy who dates Christina Ricci and Natalie Portman, and an operator who sold every track on his last album, Play, for corporate use while often wearing a T shirt for anarchist punk group Minor Threat.

America should hate Moby for all his hyphenate, cross-category greed, but he makes it awfully hard. His new album, 18, is like its creator: aggressively catholic. There are guitars, samples, surefire hits, instrumentals, dance grooves, happy songs, sad songs and angry songs. If you have a mood or desire, 18 has a song to match. And it's all pretty great.

Take the tracks to pieces, and they don't seem like much. The lyrics are average, the instrumentation capable. But Moby's great gift is for feeling. He tailors 18's melancholy cuts, Great Escape and Harbour, around vocals from the female singers Azure Ray and Sinead O'Connor. Both songs start almost a cappella, and Moby surrounds each voice with keyboards that rise like warm bathwater. The music gains tension yet never overwhelms the sad beauty of the voices. On 18's playful radio hits — We Are All Made of Stars and Jam for the Ladies — it's the beats that dominate, turning the lightweight vocals and raps into accessories.

Moby still mixes gospel samples and dance beats as he did on Play, but he does so sparingly, as if he just can't bear to deprive his faithful of some pleasure. That leaves 18's shock-of-the-new responsibilities to Moby's mouth. His early singing was pretty rough, but on Extreme Ways he bends his voice into a low growl of surprising intensity. Extreme Ways is a song about all the things Moby has — fame, fortune, parties with hot girls — and the emptiness he feels inside. Leave it to Moby to have it all, and nothing at all.