Friday, December 4, 2015


On the Internet, it seems like there is no middle ground on the subject of Enya, the Irish "new age" (a label she thinks is imprecise at best) singer. Those who don't like her music are very snarky about it, usually damning her with faint praise ("Yes, she’s sold 80 million copies of her albums, and she's very pretty, but damn, don't all of her albums sound alike?"). Those who love her music love her unconditionally and can't listen to any criticism ("Enya is a goddess; you stink; shut up!"). I'm not sure why someone whose music is so mild and uncontroversial causes such discord among music fans.

I love Enya's music and would buy anything she released, but my emotions about her don't run any higher than they do for any of my other favorite pop musicians (like REM or Joni Mitchell). I understand that her music is not for every taste, and if someone expresses distaste for her, that's fine. And, frankly, critics have a point when they complain that all her albums sound alike: they do. In fact, on her first four albums, even the formatting of tracks is the same; the first song is the title track—typically a lush, slow instrumental—the second song is a poppier, more radio-friendly song and usually the single from the album. Later you'll find a song in Latin or Gaelic (or both), and what one of my old friends calls a "bippity-boppity" song which has a stronger beat than the rest. She has occasionally tried something different—as in "My! My! Time Flies!" on And Winter Came in which she practically rocks out—but the tried and true usually wins out, and with worldwide sales of over 75 million albums, who can blame her?

Though she gets tarred with the New Age brush, I think she's gone past that label, though I'm not sure what other existing genre would fit her (Wikipedia calls her an Irish singer and instrumentalist, which is both correct and unhelpful). New Age has the reputation of being tinkly ethereal music whose main job is to relax its listeners. Enya's music can certainly be relaxing, but it can be powerful and even a little sinister. If I can say one thing about her music with certainty, it's that the lyrics (by Roma Ryan, wife of Enya's producer Nicky Ryan) are unimportant. They tend to be vague meanderings about love and loss (and water) which is fine since the message here is really in the music—the rumbling basses, the crystal clear pianos, the almost tribal percussion, the bells tolling in the distance, and the heavenly choirs of overdubbed Enyas which back up her gentle vocal leads.

The fact that most of the music is produced by synthesizers seems to bother some critics, but honestly, the music rarely sounds as artificial as electronic music can sound. If you didn't know better, you might easily assume that Enya and the Ryans had a full orchestra at their beck and call. The relaxation element might be more accurately called meditative or ruminative, as the music is rarely as surface-smooth as the music on relaxation CDs. It's a bit cliché now, but there is something almost ancient sounding about Enya's music, and having some songs in other languages adds to that feel. (She has done a few songs in Loxian, a language that Roma Ryan made up; yes, it's silly, but when I listen to those songs, I just imagine she's singing Latin.)

Her new album, Dark Sky Island, will change no one's mind. There is one immediate difference: the title song is not the first song. But otherwise, the basic formula is the same: nebulous lyrics about love and loss ("I Could Never Say Goodbye"), a song in Latin ("Astra et Luna"), instrumentals, a couple of sets of lyrics in Loxian, and some experiments with rhythm ("Echoes in Rain," "Diamonds on the Water"—which contains what sounds like woodblock percussion that I found charming on the first listen, irritating on the third). And I'm not complaining. There is something about Enya's music that feels mysterious and profound, and, for me at least, its novelty has not worn off after all these years, partly because no one else is doing it and partly because she does it so well.