In 1999, Richard Hall had an idea. He had finished his new album, which had the dubious honour of following an album that could only be called as a career clusterfuck, but had hit a peculiar brick wall: no one wanted to play it. Radio stations and music channels didn't really warm up to the songs, not really believing that they could be something a large audience would be interested in. They'd get minor airplay maybe here and there but not enough to really get out a message that they're out there. And then Hall found a solution by thinking outside the box. If he couldn't get the songs on the airwaves, he could get them on the TV. Thus, he began licensing out music from his new album to any advert agencies and TV production companies that would accept them. It started out as a simple promotional trick and it worked - the songs got an audience and they resonated among that audience. The gimmick was expanded, with more songs offered and by now even requested to be used in various means, until eventually the whole thing had snowballed so that the album is now marked down as the most licensed album in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records. But the trick indeed worked, because the album became a humongous hit and one of the biggest sellers around.
It's that dubious fame that's now associated with Play forevermore, something we're all supposed to be wary about as Real Music Fans (TM) (*cough*) because it brings to mind such heinous sins as 'selling out' and 'losing the integrity of the music' and whatnot. There's no escaping it either and, if I'm blunt, I'm not going to start defending Play about it any more than I have done by now. Its reputation is based on what genuinely happened and that's that. But it's amusing how none of this really reflects in the actual music in the way you'd expect from the type of fame. The material on Play is catchy and memorable, definitely, but hardly in a jingle-like way. It's not even the album's core. In other words, it always personally amuses me how tied Play is to the advertisement world: on one hand you have the cold and calculating world of licensing music which is only interested in profit, and on the other hand you have an album that is incredibly warm, human and resonant, and somehow those two got married in an indepth way.
Play opens with "Honey" which works rather well as a starter, serving as an introduction that basically shows what the album is about, condensing its traits in a fashion that offers a small glimpse of what's to come but doesn't play all the cards yet. The groovy, rhythmic and very modern (or was back in 1999) production is mixed together with samples of old blues and soul songs in a fashion that's become one of Play's trademark features and the main musical thing people recognise it from. It's pretty light-hearted, quite fun; a great little summer track. And then around the last minute the strings kick in and for a fleeting moment the song lowers its tone: the same elements remain but all of a sudden sound more plaintive. It's brushed off quickly to end the song with the same high note it began but that short section is why Honey exemplifies Play as a whole very well: it's a constant balance of light and dark.
In fact, if I had to describe Play with one specific emotional state I'd turn to 'melancholy'. It certainly doesn't radiate it in a quick glance: a party anthem as honest as "Bodyrock" could never be described anywhere near blue and there's several moments on Play that are reminiscent of the way Honey opened the album. But the further the album progresses, the more it begins to brush off those lightest of light sides and begins moving towards calmer, more introspective waters. The fuzzy, worn old singing from ages long gone by are already somewhat bittersweet in themselves but the further Play progresses, the more the music starts to reflect the mood and eventually disperses with the vocals altogether or replacing them with Moby's own, frail speak-singing. There is a lot of references to death, mortality and God in the lyrical snippets and occasional short passages that appear throughout the album and those are the album's firmest building blocks which then reflect on the mood.
But Play is not a sad album. It finds beauty in the melancholy. It finds beauty in everything. It's where Play keeps surprising every time it's on. Its joyous moments sound genuinely positive and happy in a way that feels like the best moments in your life, while the more downbeaten parts strip away all notion of depression and focus on finding solace on simply understanding the beauty of sadness. Sometimes whole songs are focused on these, sometimes - like in the case of Honey - Moby sneaks in a part that paints the song in a whole different light for a brief moment. It's all those moments, brief or permanent, that make Play special - those moments when all of a sudden everything is revealed in its whole gorgeousness while leaving the listener awestruck and in the mercy of it all.
To move away from the emotional, Play is also special in the sense that it's one of the few consistent Moby albums. Moby has a bit of a tradition to be a bit uneven and living with filler and failed experiments is one of those things you accept as a Moby fan. He's a great artist in the sense that while there are definite signature branches all over his albums that make the music identifiably his, he's not afraid to try out new things or create whatever he feels like at the moment - which then has the risk of resulting in somewhat overlong albums with a few duff tracks scattered across the tracklist as a remainder that not every idea manifests into a brilliant song. Which is why it's such a marvellous thing whenever he manages to actually pull out a cohesive, strong unit, even though it's somewhat rare. Play was the first of such kind in the man's discography: the first two albums were less albums and more compilations of individual bits and bobs, Everything Is Wrong branched out into every single direction and despite being a good album it's a bit of a mess, while Animal Rights is... Animal Rights, one of the famous clusterfuck albums. Play sounds not only like a stunning comeback after Animal Rights, but it's something so focused and inspirationally fueled that you could almost call it a new beginning. Every single promise of greatness that was visible in all the previous albums all of a sudden bear fruit, many of the things that are now a part of his signature sound are presented here and each song is treated with finesse, attention and care. It branches out stylistically a bit all over the place but has everything tied to the same building blocks so it's all coherent. Most notably, it sounds like an incredibly inspired work both as individual songs and as a full album. Almost like Moby had suddenly found the answers to everything and obtained some form of spiritual clarity, and then used that to form a perfectly realised album.
Which is what it is, to my ears anyway. It's an album I've lived with for years, bought on a whim eons ago and slowly working its magic on me as the time's passed. At first it made me joyous and got me to dance about in my room, eventually its subdued moments hit me and got me to sit quietly in intense concentration as I reflected what I heard: "My Weakness" in particular is a song whose power has never dulled and which is guaranteed to stir a reaction, often watery-eyed, within me whenever it appears. It is an album with a particular type of impact on me, and it's actually an impact not repeated in the majority of my other close personal favourites. Because Play mixes together the very upbeat with the very downbeat, it's an album that provokes reactions from all the sides of the spectrum rather than simply keep one steady mood which is usually what enchants me to albums. It's an album I always party along to on my own but which always ends up turning me into a reflecting pile of human fluff as it progresses. Ultimately it's a good thing: when "My Weakness" fades out of existence that feeling of existential clarity that follows whenever you've once again finished a close personal favourite thing (be it an album, a book, a film or a game) is a particularly interesting kind of mush of joy and melancholy. And, of course, the notion of realising the beauty in both which the album presents you with.
If that previous paragraph sounds like pretentious bollocks, then it does. Because Play is one my favourite musical recordings in this world and there's no other way of extensively talking about something like that other than pretentious writer-centric bollocks.