Enya has had a fairly odd relationship with critics. When she first burst on to the scene as a twentysomething in the shadow of Clannad, one of the greatest traditional Irish bands of all time, her weird mix of neo-Celtic stylings and synth-slanted gravitas marked her out as a novel new type of weirdo for the music press to pick apart and mythologise.
But then, her unique brand of processed, expansive mambience [ambient music for mams] unexpectedly became a global smash, and young Eithne Ní Bhraonáin found herself clasped to the heaving, bead-wearing bosoms of a whole new audience. Having already been a hit within trad and folk circles, she was quickly embraced by the new age and mystical movements, the burgeoning easy listening and chill-out scenes, and the newly thirsty hordes of celtophiles among the world’s Irish diaspora, flush with cash and ravenous for her particular brand of gently absorbing synth-diddly. The cumulative effect of all this intrigue was massive, ludicrous, preposterous success, all of which culminated in a pale, stage-shy Gaeilgoir being the world’s best-selling recording artist in both 2001 and 2002.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with liking Enya because of any of these background details, or because you find her a bit odd, or preposterous, or camp. I’m outright suspicious of anyone who doesn’t entertain idle daydreams of Enya the velvet-clad recluse, wandering through her castle blowing cobwebs off candelabras as she places them atop her favourite keyboards. There’s no shame in being enamored with the insane, sitcom-style trappings of her origin story; the shy teen sister of Clannad, skulking offstage with her nose in a Moog manual, who went on to sell 80 million records via a genre of music no-one had previously heard of. This is a compelling narrative. A bit like if Janet Jackson had accidentally fumbled her way into her brothers’ spotlight, only to surpass them all via her passion for reggae metal.
Having said all that, Enya’s albums live or die by the music therein, and any new album is an event. If we count the Christmas record, And Winter Came, it’s been 8 years since Enya last troubled the charts. If we go back to her last common-or-garden studio album, Amarantine, then we’re at a full decade. Any fans anxious of a change in musical direction in that time should have their fears immediately assuaged; this is resolutely, and unmistakably, prime-cut Enya.
From the opening bars of The Humming, the listener slots straight into the comforting environs of Enya at her most atmospheric, a medieval tinge added by the harpsichord twang to the central melody. The words are yearning and mysterious in that crossword-clue fashion so irritating to her detractors, the type who wonder aloud whether her lyrics are written for, about or by people recovering from serious head injuries.
This resolute commitment to Enya-ness continues on So I Could Find My Way, which borrows the slow fret march of O Holy Night but elevates that brazen lift with swoonsome vocal layering and a truly off-the-dial reading on the sincere-o-meter. It’s a very pretty song and completes a solid one-two opening punch for the record. This decision to stick to the basics seems like even more of a master-stroke on Even In The Shadows and title track Dark Sky Island, both of which tuck so neatly into the Enya canon you can scarcely believe they weren’t present, note-for-note, on each of her previous albums. Even the song names themselves have a comfortingly samey feel; you can imagine each written on a scented candle in Papyrus script, or as the web domain name for a wind-chime wholesaler.
If one is to be critical, you could argue that lead single Echoes In Rain could probably survive without the hooky refrain of “Alleluia, alle-alle-alleluia-ah” . Enya’s chilly, Senior Prefect diction doesn’t lend itself to vocal playfulness, and attempts at jazzing up her austere delivery can leave her sounding like a nun gamely leading the chants at a rugby match, though thankfully some way short of the dreaded granny-rapping-in-an-Adam-Sandler-movie.
For the most part, however, the record plays it straight. Several listens later, it’s easy to mistake two, three, or even four songs on this record for each other, as a lot of separating detail gets lost amid the foamy wash of multi-layered vocals and angelic choir reverb.
But these aren’t really flaws so much as tropes, the very factors which drive fans in their droves to record shops to buy her albums in the millions. While Sancta Maria and Astra et Luna are not exactly memorable, they have a character and style that grows with every listen, and which transport you back to that strange world Enya conjures in your ear. This sound is her USP, as carefully crafted and refined as any artist whose work is instantly recognisable. For all the sense that some of these sounds, tones and atmospheres have been visited before, there’s nothing here which feels thrown-together, cynical, or formulaic in design. It’s the sound of an artist perfecting her niche so completely that she takes a decade to recharge her batteries and dish out another helping of this strange, and strangely consistent, confection.
Enya has expressed interest in touring with an orchestra for a live run-through of her greatest hits, a prospect which would render her wealthy enough to spend her remaining years on that Vietnamese island where Richard Branson and Marty Whelan hunt humans for sport. On the strength of Dark Sky Island, I hope she remains instead within her castle, perambulating through its corridors, hitching up the excessively long sleeves of her velvet cape, freeing those dainty digits to paw at that Roland Juno 60 once more. In a cobwebbed darkness, may she sing, hum and apply reverb to her many future records, lit only by the soft LED glow of the keyboard’s digital read-out and the faint, twinkly blinking of the 6,000 candles she no doubt keeps about the place.