Wail of a time

Music - Jason Cowley on the lonely soundscapes of the multimillion-selling Moby

What is Moby? Listening to the voice of the man who calls himself Moby, you wouldn't say that he was a singer exactly.

His voice - when it is heard at all - is a curiously flat, untrained, toneless instrument, but one, all the same, that has a kind of melancholy grandeur. He sounds as if he spent much of his adolescence in Connecticut listening to the records of pioneering "futurists" such as Gary Numan, John Foxx and Ian Curtis of Joy Division - which, as it happens, he did.

Moby is a concept: Moby the man and Moby the brand are, at once, the same and different. Everything on a record by Moby carries the signature of the man as multi-instrumentalist, electronic composer, producer, engineer and writer. But there's always something more than simply Moby himself, even though his records are issued under his own name; for a start, there are many other voices.

Sometimes, these voices are ghostly samples - from old jazz, blues and gospel tracks. Sometimes, they are guest singers such as Sinead O'Connor, who has never sounded more sombre or more like Michael Stipe of REM, as she sings here, on the outstanding "Harbour", of "playing the saddest songs on the strings of my heart". Sometimes, these are the voices of intense emotional pain - although you can dance to Moby's music, there is little uplifting about it. It's best heard late at night, when you've returned home, perhaps half-drunk after a long and exhausting day.

At such moments, as you reflect on the world and your place in it, Moby's essentially late-adolescent sensibility and his hazy, somnambulatory electronic soundscapes - with their ambient loops, samples and repetitions - seem entirely right.

Moby the concept has been greatly enhanced by the global reach of the internet, through which Moby the man regularly communicates in gnomic utterances with his cult-like following, exchanges e-mails with his fans, and generally uses his website (www.moby.co.uk) to keep them posted on his thinking about all the major issues. His position of earnest, post-ideological engagement "vibes" perfectly with the disenchanted cool of assorted anti-globalisation hipsters and other aimless rebels.

There is nothing predictable about Moby. There's no one distinctive Moby sound or style. A little bit of jazz, some ambient dance, a bluesy lament or two, some simple early Eighties-style electro-pop: Moby is the sum of all of his influences. His exuberant eclecticism and experimentation meant that, for a long time, he was largely ignored by record players and record buyers. During this period, from when he signed his first record deal in 1986 to the release of Play in 1999, he spent much of his time on the edges of the music business, developing a reputation as a boffinish computer maverick who happened also to be a talented DJ. That he was very bald, very short and rather intellectual (Herman Melville is a distant ancestor, hence the oblique nickname "Moby") did little to enhance his wider appeal.

Then he released Play, a record that has never stopped selling. Today everyone, it seems, certainly if you follow his website, wants to know, or work with Moby - Play has sold more than ten million copies worldwide and few doubt that 18, his new release, will be a comparable success.

Part of the explanation for the remarkable popularity of Play is that you often find yourself listening to it without realising that you are actually doing so. From the beginning, in an attempt to circumnavigate the radio stations that continued stubbornly to ignore Moby, Play became, through canny licensing, the soundtrack of innumerable television advertisements, movie sequences and news reports (the producers of BBC2's Newsnight, in particular, are fond of Moby and of his synthesised gospel lament "Natural Blues").

That Moby also had a club following and that many of his tracks could be described, at a push, as ambient dance - the slower, more introspective trance-like rhythms to which fatigued clubbers often relax - helped propel him towards a mainstream audience.

As you would expect for a record that was more than three years in the making, 18 is a much more mature and sophisticated offering than Play - although Moby has not abandoned his anarchic, DIY approach to music-making. The stylised disaffection of the lyrics and the mood of late-night ennui and lassitude are also the same. When asked recently if he had an ideal audience in mind when he wrote a song, Moby said: "It's weird, maybe, but every song I write, I imagine this specific kind of person who is listening to it alone, always alone, sitting by himself or herself."

Loneliness is, I think, the key to understanding the admirable Moby. More than any other contemporary musician, he understands and provides the soundtrack for a dazed and confused generation: a post-political generation that believes in nothing except the sovereignty of the self, but spends much of its leisure time in flight from the responsibility of that self, seeking abandon in the loneliness of the rave crowd or in a willed narcotised haze. A kind of play, indeed.

18 is out from Mute Records