Time-Warped Records: “Play”

In this edition of Time-Warped Records, Columnist Alden Parker ’26 reviews Moby’s 1999 album “Play,” which catapulted the musician from has-been to worldwide superstar.

Time-Warped Records: “Play”
Moby released “Play” without a record label or the support of a fanbase, but the album is now considered his magnum opus. Photo courtesy of Wired.it.

In the annals of musical history, few artists can lay claim to a “comeback” both as unexpected and as successful as that of Richard Hall, professionally known as Moby. Having risen to notoriety in the burgeoning electronic music scene of the 1990s as a versatile composer and performer, by the decade’s end he had lost most of his popularity and industry goodwill, as his sudden diversion into hard rock on his 1996 album “Animal Rights” confused fans and sold very little. Already disillusioned from receiving short shrift as an electronic artist in the past, Moby separated himself from his record label after the release, and wrapped up the mixing of his next album while looking ahead toward a new life outside music. Twenty-four years later, though, Moby is still very much active in the industry — and “Play,” his 1999 intended final album, has become his magnum opus and the savior of his career.

As a downtempo electronic album, “Play” is less of an exploration of overarching themes than it is one of moods. A feeling of relaxation and comfort permeates the album’s sound, from the lightly swinging percussion or rhythm guitars that drive tracks like “Rushing” and “Everloving” to the ethereal piano flourishes that punctuate the gentle underlying strings and synths of “Porcelain” and “Inside.” Even when the album takes a turn into a harder sound (most notably on “Machete,” a jittery throwback to Moby’s techno days), it’s easy to kick back, turn your brain off, and let the good vibes take over.

As it turns out, this ease of listening would prove to be “Play”’s secret to success. Having little to gain from conventional methods of publicity, Moby and his management team welcomed all requests to license the album’s music for film, television, and advertisements. As more and more commercial representatives turned to the album for unassuming-but-memorable songs to associate with their products, the sound of “Play” became ubiquitous in the public consciousness, raising Moby’s profile from has-been to superstar practically within a fortnight.

Most of “Play”’s apparent familiarity can be attributed to its liberal use of samples, particularly of blues and folk field recordings dating as far back as the 1930s; a compilation assembled by the renowned ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax served as Moby’s primary resource and well of inspiration throughout the recording process. This close connection to the roots of the North American musical tradition gives many of the songs a fundamental quality: By starting from such an early point in music history, Moby makes himself free to develop in any direction from the samples’ bases, while still appealing to his audience’s recognition of the material from its many later permutations, from blues to rock to hip-hop.

However, at the same time, this raises the question of how much of “Play”’s quality is truly due to Moby’s talent, and how much is reliance on the work of talented but underrecognized Black artists from long before his time. As catchy as songs like “Run On” and “Natural Blues” may be, are they really anything more than outright transplants of the gospel and blues standards “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” and “Trouble So Hard,” respectively, with only a little extra embellishment? That the album loses its luster in its final twenty minutes, when it breaks away from the vocal samples to focus on a suite of original but less distinctive instrumentals, does not exactly shift the argument in Moby’s favor.

Nevertheless, “Play” represents an impressive effort to tap into a primal aspect of humanity’s relationship with music, giving the oral tradition a fresh coat of paint while still managing to make its original additions feel classic themselves. Whether it’s the soundtrack for an on-the-floor dance party or the background noise in a shopping center, Moby’s pleasant soundscape can make itself at home in practically any context. It’s the sound of our hopes, our joys, our comforts… the sound of our daily play.

Time-Warped Records is a new column dedicated to retrospective reviews of music albums at least 10 years old, submitted by reader request. To suggest an album for review, please email Alden Parker ’26 at [email protected].