The thing that makes Play a fun listen is its lack of focus. Moby uses a smorgasbord of 90s electronic and pop elements on this record, and instead of trying to meld them together to make something new or fully cohesive, he gives each genre its own song or two to shine. Because of this – and the fact that there are eight total singles that came off this album, each of which received radio play and have appeared in various media in the years since – Play ends up feeling more like a greatest hits compilation and a traditional studio album.
The accumulation of all the different things you get here – with the electronic production, the blues and folk samples, the live vocals, acoustic guitars and pianos – creates overall a pretty engaging album that comes off like a homage to the different things from the 90s – whether that be breakbeat techno, trip-hop and downtempo, ambient or rock.
However, as much as I want to praise Moby for diving into so many different areas, a lot of tracks fall a bit flat. Most of the tracks are like the diet coke version of the different styles. It’s sweet, it sparkles, it’s soda, so it’s a bit addicting, and it’s better than something flavorless. But at the end of the day, diet soda (for most of us, anyway) is never better than the real thing. On Play, while Moby is making trip-hop, downtempo, breakbeat and ambient music that fits into the era, he isn’t doing it as well as Massive Attack or DJ Shadow, he isn’t doing it as well as The Prodigy or The Chemical Brothers or Fat Boy Slim, or Air, or Boards of Canada.
The songs are catchy, but not addicting; they’re clean, but not fresh; they’re up beat, but don’t make you want to jump for joy; they’re chill, but not deep and atmospheric. And everything brought together under one roof weakens the package and effectiveness as a whole.
Play is also way too long for its own good, and the back half of the record is a lot more lowkey and chill, with a lot of the stronger, upbeat singles like “Southside,” “Porcelain,” and “Honey” right at the top of the record.
I think it’s an album best approached by picking and choosing your favorite songs to throw on and enjoy from time to time, or as part of a playlist, instead of running through the record from beginning to end. There are good moments that are fun to listen to individually, and the album serves as a good primer into electronic pop of the era.