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He aims to please 

Moby plays to the crowd on 18

It's hard to remember a time in the not-too-distant past when Moby's bald head, diminutive figure and slightly apologetic face weren't staring at you every time you opened a magazine, glanced up at a billboard or turned on the TV. And judging by his unsurprising new album, 18, it seems Moby himself is having difficulty remembering those days.

Up until now, Moby's albums, while all over the musical map, have sounded like they were made with only one audience in mind: himself. On 18, though, it's clear that the ever-polite Connecticut-born New Yorker has an ear bent toward the 10 million or so folks who bought 1999's Play. Such, it seems, is the inevitable byproduct of massive success.

It's been a strange, twisted trip for Moby. After flailing around in punk and hardcore bands as a teen, he decamped to New York, where he quickly became one of the leading lights of the underground dance scene, turning out influential and surprisingly eclectic singles that blurred electronic beats, ambient swirls and a yen for speed. His 1995 album, Everything Is Wrong, was both the culmination and the renunciation of his dance roots. Yes, it was ostensibly dance music (or "techno," as it was then dubbed). But, overlaid with theatrical soul-diva vocals, heavy rock guitars and loads of other nifty sonic treats, it sounded like nothing so much as post-modern pop music. The album was a modest success, garnering glowing reviews and selling somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 copies. With the music media dulled to death by the onslaught of Nirvana sound-alikes and primed for the next musical revolution, Moby was quickly anointed as the face of the coming "electronica" invasion.

Then, in 1997, he served up Animal Rights, a stark, jarring record that ditched the trappings of "electronica," replacing them with dissonant, hardcore guitar thrash, throat-shredding screams and gentle classical piano fugues. The album was savaged by the few folks who bothered to pay any attention to it, and Moby was soon dumped by his label.

Which is what made the success of Play so astounding. You could certainly trace the album's intoxicating mix of supple dance beats, smooth pop hooks and gritty blues and gospel samples back to points in Moby's previous work. But it had nothing to do with the prevailing musical climate. Like Animal Rights -- and for that matter, all of Moby's previous albums -- it was simply a statement of where he was.

So what the hell happened with 18?

Well, it sounds like Moby was afraid to venture too far from the formula that moved 10 million copies of Play. There's something incredibly safe and unimaginative about the mix here. Where Play's folksy samples created jarring juxtapositions between the past and the present, the re-combination on 18 -- particularly on "In This World" and "Another Woman" -- is smoother and duller. "In My Heart" recycles a spacey piano melody Moby's been dragging around since the mid-'90s. The spectral orchestral rock of "Signs of Love" and "Look Back In" sounds like Spiritualized minus the transcendence, while the classic hip-hop vibe of "Jam for the Ladies" echoes Play's "Bodyrock." The smooth electro-pop of "We Are All Made of Stars" and "Sunday" feels like a less-vibrant take on the Play hit "South Side."

In a sense, Moby is the victim of his own success. When you go from being a mere blip on the pop-culture radar to virtual ubiquity, it's got to be damn-near impossible to make an album without asking yourself, "What will my fans think?"

But if Moby wants to recover the creative edge that made him so compelling in the first place, he needs to figure out how not to care about the answer to that question.

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