“I Say a Little Prayer.” When Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote that sunny little ditty for Dionne Warwick back in 1967, they hit on a simple truth: Listening to pop can be like praying. Spirit in sound form, music enters your body through the ears, then subtly, sometimes markedly, alters the state of your being. Whenever you turn on the radio or stereo and sing along with a song, you indulge in wish fulfillment — whether the words you chant ask for love or a reason to live.
In the most demanding and rewarding pop/rock, love and faith move beyond words and melt into something transcendent. Such is the case with the songs on Moby's new release, Everything Is Wrong. Prejudice against a type of music often links with prejudice against the culture responsible for it, so it's tempting to view Moby as techno's “acceptable” straight white face; thankfully, his talent renders the point moot. A Christian who hates the religious right, a drug-free vegan who makes dance music, Moby pushes the boundaries of genres — blues, speed metal, ambient, disco and classical — and reveals the humanity at the heart of each. He does so by investing technology with soul, or by discovering the soul already lurking in machines. This spirit is slightly alien, and thereby poignant.
On the cover of Everything Is Wrong, Moby is submerged in cool, pool-blue water. Like his music, the image makes up in intensity what it lacks in style. Head shaved, eyes ablaze, Moby resembles a baby. Mostly, he looks “touched,” with all the crazy, visionary connotations that word evokes. “Blue” permeates the songs on the album, from the oceanic and interstellar keyboard textures to the lyrics and song titles. Sound, not language, is the album's strong point; when Mimi Goese of the late-'80s art-damaged group Hugo Largo sings about falling “into the blue,” she literalizes what instrumentals like “First Cool Hive” (a near-anagram of “Love of Christ”) and “God Moving Over the Face of the Water” convey without words.
Moby's own voice suits masculine blues and metal, while Goese and house diva Rozz Morehead express his feminine side. Everything Is Wrong follows a life-to-death trajectory in tone, gradually shifting from the brittle beats of industrial and techno to ambient's rhythmless calm. Rather than pander to surface sensation, Moby turns techno's extremes of motion into extreme emotion. When he samples a simple utterance and repeats it through an entire song, the effect is spiritual, not mechanical. He speeds up joyful shouts until they attain a superhuman urgency, and stretches and splices sad cries, drawing out their empty ache.
While '70s disco continues to draw people together at clubs, it's hard to imagine most of today's techno having the same effect two decades from now. Caught in an eternal “present,” the genre keeps morphing faster, growing more dispensable in the process. In contrast, the best songs on Everything Is Wrong — “Anthem,” the title track — strive for timelessness, transcending their influences (Giorgio Moroder and Angela Badalamenti, respectively). And with “Every Time You Touch Me,” Moby has created a disco single every bit as religious as those that first inspired him. When Rozz Morehead wails, “Every time you touch me/ I feel like I'm being born,” over surging waves of synth, the cumulative effect is of euphoria that spills into tears.
Polly Jean Harvey, too, floats in water on the cover of her new release, To Bring You My Love, which shares the baptismal quality of Moby's artwork. But there are differences in the two images, differences that extend to the artist's music. Emerald green and ruby red, Harvey's portrait is both artier and more ambivalent. As she bobs half above and half below the surface of the water — an element that traditionally symbolizes consuming faith and desire — she struggles violently with a realization that Moby calmly accepts: Water drowns as well as cleanses.
Like Moby's, PJ Harvey's music isn't for casual listening: It wants your soul. Romantic loss haunts To Bring You My Love, which takes on two major metaphorical forms: hysterical pregnancy and mystic vision. References to heaven, hell and lost children color the album's desolate landscape. The jilted narrator of “C'Mon Billy” first mentions the unborn child growing inside her, then perversely beckons Billy himself with a whimper of “come to Mama.” As the protagonist in the closing “The Dancer” has a brief vision both sacred and profane, Harvey's wailing moves from shock to panic to pleasure to ecstasy, and, finally, back to frustration.
Divided into two five-song sections that perfectly match each other's mood and movement, To Bring You My Love is the most stark and sophisticated of Harvey's three studio LPs. Harvey uses lyrical and instrumental repetition to convey stifled obsession and spiritual longing. Honed down to two or three syllables a line, the vocal track on most songs functions like an incantation, not a melody.
Bringing a different voice to each composition, the characters Harvey inhabits are nameless phantoms. While gendered, their sex is indeterminate: Two songs after she commands the listener to hear her “long snake moan,” Harvey assumes a macho drawl to declare, “I think I'm a mother.” Her role-playing doesn't belong to the exterior world of drag, but the inner realm of desire, where many selves — both masculine and feminine — lurk. And identifying with these creations can be dangerous. Muttering and whispering into a mike taped to her body on “Working for the Man,” Harvey literally draws you in, then swallows both the song and the listener whole with a satisfied gulp.
At times, Harvey's immense talent and effortless formal control can be off-putting; her expressions of vulnerability are so fierce they don't always ring true. Initially, the self-conscious dramatic posturing of the vocals on To Bring You My Love creates a distance between her performance and the characters she embodies. But once the songs begin to weave their spell, this exaggeration becomes a necessary part of a musical roller coaster that hits heights and depths no other album this year is likely to approach. Likewise Harvey's starkly ambiguous spirituality: As she conflates pimps with deities in “Working for the Man,” and alternately calls out to Jesus and curses “God above,” Harvey leaves you grappling with your own faith in life and love.