Who's the real Fatboy Slim? Is he a cheeky DJ with a taste for strong drink and charmingly stupid electronica? Or is he, newly married and now a thirtysomething, on a quest to create a post-rave masterpiece? Slim has flirted with the spiritual with his single "I Want to Praise You," but his club-kid behavior has always made us wonder who, or what, he's intent on praising.

"Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars," Fatboy Slim's third album and the follow-up to his 1998 breakthrough, "You've Come a Long Way Baby," raises more questions than it answers. The new album finds Slim (a.k.a. Norman Cook) trying to balance his party-animal image with a more mature and reflective sensibility--though it's still hard to say where his heart really rests.

Cook's hedonist image is largely the result of "The Rockefeller Skank," the hit single from "You've Come a Long Way Baby," the album that also hit with "I Want to Praise You." Introducing American audiences to European electronica in a gloriously goofy package, "The Rockefeller Skank" carried a simple message--Let's get down!

The ubiquitous soundtrack at sweaty frat parties and major-league sporting events, "The Rockefeller Skank" layered the catchphrase "Right about now/The funk soul brother" over a groove that typified the electronic subgenre known as big-beat--a fist-pumping mixture of chunky hip-hop breakbeats, rollicking guitar licks, and crackling funk loops. Combined with Cook's well-publicized Ecstasy and alcohol use, "The Rockefeller Skank" solidified Cook's reputation as a hard-living club kid.

To some extent, "Halfway Between" continues this party-hearty tradition, though Cook has traded the sunny big-beat blueprint for a darker and less accessible sound. He mixes blistering hard house ("Star 69"), aggressive rock riffage ("Ya Mama"), and corrosive synthesizer burn ("Retox").

But the aging raver seems to be tiring. The most successful moments on "Halfway Between" speak to the heart, not the hips. And for his first single from "Halfway Between," Cook has chosen the most foreboding number, "Sunset (Bird of Prey)" over the best party track ("Love Life") or the fiercest dance cut ("Ya Mama").

Outfitted with a sample of Jim Morrison reading from his "An American Prayer," "Sunset" manipulates trance burbles, ambient keyboard washes, and a gentle, syncopated beat into an atmosphere of genuine dread. The Morrison snippet ("Bird of prey/Flying high/Through the sky/Gently pass on by/Take me on your flight") sounds phoned in from the afterlife.

Like Moby, Cook is fond of using African-American spiritual signifiers--gospel choruses, samples of preachers--to reveal his inner thoughts. In "Drop the Hate," the club kid introduces a utopian idealism underneath the electronic trickery. He brings together crisp double-time breakbeats, wicked bass fluctuations, with a sample of righteous preaching ("Drop the hate/Forgive each other.... Let's join hands and walk together").

The emotional outpouring continues on "Demons," as guest Macy Gray puts words to Cook's soul searching: "I kinda feel like a cesspool, I wanna be with you/It's my premonition, I better give my heart a listen." A loping gospel piano vamp, meanwhile, lowers the tempo and raises the tear count.

The final track, "Song for Shelter," interlaces the barrelhouse piano of the album's opening track ("Talking Bout My Baby") with the house groove of "Star 69," creating 10 minutes of ambient tones and spoken-word epiphanies about finding transcendence on the dance floor without the help of a pill. Meandering, bravely pretentious, and absolutely gorgeous, "Song for Shelter," like all the best parts of "Halfway Between," affirms Cook's uncanny ability to find redemption in a sampler and a drum machine.

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