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Vol. LXV, No. 28
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
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Record Review

Making Life More Majestic: Moby Releases the Spirit in the Machine

Stuart Mitchner

Go to parts of London at three o’clock in the morning on a Sunday and it feels like the Rapture has happened and you’re the only person left. God has taken his chosen people, the problem being you are the only non-chosen person ….

My interest in gospel music and liturgical art and Biblically-inspired literature has nothing to do with organized religion and everything to do with human beings trying to figure out their place on this planet. So when I listen to gospel singers pouring their hearts out to God, it’s the act of pouring their hearts out that interests me.

— Moby, talking to Stephen Dalton

Listening to Moby’s new album Destroyed on a relatively serious sound system after several hearings on the car stereo, I found myself feeling the sort of delusional euphoria that inspires wild thoughts like wishing I were rich enough to buy 30,000 copies of the CD to enclose with every issue of this week’s Town Topics. Or wishing I could inject musical elixirs like “Stella Maris” and “Lie Down in Darkness” into the bloodstreams or dreamstreams of the politicians haggling over the debt ceiling.

I know, it’s hard to believe that transcendent, life-altering music can be achieved by a nerdy-looking bald guy whose main claim to pantheon status until now has been that he descended to earth from a distant star called Melville. So, what has Moby done? In the conversation quoted above (www.thequietus.com), he says, speaking of gospel singers, that it’s the act of pouring out their hearts that interests him. One of the most impressive examples of what he’s achieved here is “Stella Maris,” in which Swedish soprano Anna Maria Friman’s “pouring out” has been routed through what appears to be the medium of another species. This scary, uncanny, weirdly beautiful hymn, heard through the seeming chaos of the unearthly soundscape created for it, is far more moving than it would have been had it been delivered by the singer’s “human” voice.

At its richest, and it has never been richer than it is on Destroyed, Moby’s music seems expressive of everything of value in life. In the throes of my delusional euphoria, I could imagine that this “soundtrack for empty cities,” as he terms it in the liner notes, would electrify animals, machines, various life forms, and interplanetary beings as well as earthlings like you and me. Moby suggests that this 15-song symphony should be listened to from start to finish since he conceived it as a “cohesive body of work” that makes “the most sense” when heard “in its entirety at least once.” Having followed Moby’s advice several times, most recently while driving from near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where his great ancestor began writing Moby Dick, to the Woodstock exit on the New York Thruway, I can testify that in its combustible forthright entirety Destroyed holds the road, takes the curves, shifts, downshifts, and surges as neatly as Moby’s namesake, my 2000 Honda CRV, actually named for Melville’s whale (see Town Topics, Nov. 18, 2009).

Think of it: the Honda is a machine. Destroyed, too, is a machine. During the 70-odd minutes and however many miles we traveled from Track number 1,”The Broken Places,” to number 15, “When You Are Old,” we were a seventy-mile-an-hour force of music. Which is what the album is all about or so it seemed to me by the time I got home and listened to it again on a more serious sound system. Not to suggest that Richard Melville Hall is some kind of mad scientist, but listening to Destroyed I kept thinking of the philosopher’s stone. Instead of turning base metal into gold, however, Moby is transmuting emotional gold from the base metal of the machine.

Sometimes in my delusional rapture, I thought Moby was channeling “The Virgin in the Dynamo” chapter of The Autobiography of Henry Adams, where Adams deals with the daunting convergence of technology and humanity he witnessed at the 1900 Paris Exhibition by equating the power of the machine with the spiritual power of Mary. So it might seem in Moby’s “Stella Maris” (as in Mary, Star of the Sea), since in the interview quoted at the top he says that Mary “fascinates” him “because she’s like a folk hero.” Except that the synthetic voice from the other side of the human in “Stella Maris” isn’t Mary, it’s Anna Maria, who, far from being violated or corrupted by technology, has been translated by it into “something rich and strange.” This is what happens in the chillingly lovely choral background in “Lie Down in Darkness” and the voicing of the music of the spheres accompanying Moby’s human voice in “Blue Moon.” If whales can sing, so can stars.

In Flight

If you’ve ever slept on a night flight you’ve probably heard music in the humming of the engines. I first heard Moby’s 2009 album Wait for Me at 33,000 feet, a work that seemed to have been composed to accompany a transatlantic flight. The in-flight, in transit context for Destroyed is much more explicit, and by all rights the record should already be an in-flight audio offering on every airline on the planet. That’s what the booklet of Moby’s photographs that comes with the CD is all about: you see people waiting in airport lounges, including a nun with a laptop and a cell phone; you see views from airplane windows and people looking out of them; a stewardess demonstrating an oxygen mask; city lights and landscapes far below; tunnels and subway vistas, and of course the photo on the front of the album showing the single LED word Destroyed, taken when Moby was wandering around LaGuardia killing time during a long flight delay. The full message was Unattended Luggage Will Be Destroyed.

Feeling Majestic

Moby’s music has always had a melancholic bent, with the mad exhilaration of “Feeling So Real” offset by “When It’s Cold Out I’d Like to Die” and other songs about dying. In fact, Moby’s most symphonic compositions heighten the sense of life as something precious and mysterious hovering over the last moment, breathing the last breath. Here are some comments from the YouTube blog of “Stella Maris”:

This song sends me to heaven every time I hear it.

Here we stand: fragile and longing for grace and love. this song has it all.

I hope I’m listening to this when it’s my turn to die.

So magical spherical and sad at the same time.

Listen to this when dark rises to the pure silence of lights.

This song was sung at Fingolfin’s funeral [in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings]. Those who feel it, know.

After listening to “The Violent Bear It Away,” someone blogged, “Where is my Prozac — oh wait, I don’t need it now. I’m listening to Moby.”

After “Lie Down in Darkness,” someone said, “I imagine that when we ascend to immortality, this will be playing in the background.” To which someone else responded, “Don’t know about ascension but I want this jam played on my funeral.” And someone else said it best, “Songs like this make life more majestic.”

Moby doesn’t discourage such reactions, to say the least. A “Stella Maris” blogger called it “an emotional masterpiece.” Another song is titled “Lacrimae,” from the Aeneid when Aeneas is overcome by the futility of war and the waste of human life. Translated by Robert Fagles, “The world is a world of tears, and the burdens of mortality touch the heart.”

Counting “Lacrimae,” Richard Melville Hall’s literary ancestry is reflected in six of the songs, with titles from Flannery O’Connor (“The Violent Bear It Away”), William Styron (“Lie Down in Darkness”), Tolstoy (“Sevastapol”), William J.Locke (“Stella Maris”), and “Victoria Lucas” (Sylvia Plath’s pseudonym).

So here’s this slightly built, unprepossessing guy who makes music in lonely hotel rooms at two in the morning and flies every year to cities all over the world knowing that when he walks onto a stage, there will be stadiums and arenas brimming with unimaginably immense crowds waiting for him to send them to heaven.

All the music from Destroyed can be heard on YouTube, though, needless to say, it’s a poor substitute for a headset or a good sound system or even a car stereo. Moby made three music videos on camcorders: “Be the One,” shot on a flight from New York to L.A.; “Sevastopol” on a flight to Brazil; “Victoria Lucas” at night in L.A. “when seemingly everyone else was asleep.” The one staged, wildly elaborate video, for “The Day” (a magnificent song) was directed by Evan Bernard and features Heather Graham as a demon-slaying angel.

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