The way I listen to music relies heavily on the seasons. There are certain records which invariably evoke the sense of a particular time of year for me; so much so sometimes that I have real difficulty listening to them unless it’s at that time when the atmosphere of the record reflects what’s happening around me. Autumn is a time of year when that relationship between music and the changing season is especially strong, and over the years I’ve come to regard some albums as quintessential Autumn listening.
Enya is one of those artists whose mission in life seems to have been to create records that I can only listen to at particular times of the year. In her case, it’s almost exclusively autumn and winter. There’s just something about her approach to writing that evokes the sense of the change from the heat of the carefree summer to the falling leaves and cold winds of winter. I feel that change very strongly; the entropy of autumn and the drawing in of the evenings has always had a substantial impact on me. I find the last few months of the year – October through to New Year’s Day in particular, but right through to the onset of Spring if I’m honest – very spiritual. I can almost sense a sharp intake of breath from some of you reading this: “spiritual? Ooh err, sounds like he’s getting religion!” I can assure you that this is not the case, nor is it ever likely to be. I’m a long-established atheist (albeit with some sympathy for the world-view of pantheism) and cannot ever see that changing. When I talk of spirituality, I don’t mean the loaves-and-fishes, holy trinity variety. I’m talking about the natural cycle of birth, life and death.
The older I get, the more I find myself considering mortality. Not just mine, but everyone’s. I suppose that that’s perfectly understandable: at some point you realise that more days lie behind you than are likely to lie ahead. This feeling is inevitably reinforced by the number of loved ones and acquaintances whose deaths you have to face up to along the way, and the older you get, the more of those deaths accumulate. Naturally, a part – however small – of your mind starts considering mortality, and with it the life you’ve lived, and the things (often small) that you will miss experiencing.
Sobering stuff, right? But this is where Enya and her music scores. Enya’s music reflects this outlook on the cycle of life quite powerfully, I feel. Her background is in folk music, of course: for those who were unaware, she started her career playing and singing with family members in folk legends Clannad. Folk music is as riddled with unthinking, narrow-minded purists as almost any other genre of music you could name, however, and the principal group of critics of Enya’s music seem to be those who feel that her music is too far removed from the folk tradition; that in turning to synthesisers and a generally pretty introspective feel, she is making cynical, lacklustre ‘New Age’ music – the sort of stuff that people sneeringly associate with recordings of whalesong and self-help mantras; sleepy, chill-out muzak for yuppies and chintz-obsessed grandmothers. To say I feel this idea of Enya and her music is wide of the mark is the daddy of all understatements.
Enya’s music is inescapably romantic, it’s true. Any music that so heavily relies on strings – synthesised or otherwise – could hardly be otherwise, really. Her lyrics – usually penned for her by long-term collaborator Roma Ryan – are a veritable travelogue, too, namechecking destinations around the globe (and indeed beyond, with songs often looking into the heavens). That sense of restlessness, of exploration, anchors her music to reality, to the world around her and her listeners.
Here’s the kicker, though: Enya’s songs are invariably spiritual. And whilst Enya herself is religious – her Roman Catholicism has been cause for remark in the past and will undoubtedly be so again – I’m not talking about religious content here. I’m speaking of spirituality again in that sense of the cycle of life. Enya’s music is filled with meditations on mortality. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the travels she is often found singing about aren’t solely geographical; they are metaphorical, too. The journeys she sings about are those that move us through life, passing into death. I expect you can already see how I’m going to connect the dots here, but that’s the essence of why I find Enya’s music so evocative and often so moving. Her songs talk about love, loss, and of life lived well.
Another complaint often lodged at Enya’s door is that so much of her music sounds the same. This accusation is harder to argue, purely because there is a grain of truth in it. Most of her music is as much space between notes as notes themselves, and much of it is paced as slow-motion balladry. However, I would argue that Enya’s instantly identifiable approach to writing and arrangement, and the subject matter of her songs, ensures that her records always sound like Enya albums. Enya is not a musician that is ever going to wake up one morning and decide to “go metal” or make that jazz fusion album. Her focus is always going to be her extraordinarily pure voice, and the music necessarily has to have room for that voice to be used in the way Enya feels it is best employed. Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, who are the critics to complain when the results of Enya’s stylistic choices have sold millions of copies of her albums? Enya’s music doesn’t do so well commercially because it follows a trend: quite the opposite, in fact. I myself tend to reserve a special appreciation for musicians who boldly shatter stylistic boundaries and mash-up elements of their musical sound to produce the unexpected; I have a particular love for musicians who please themselves first and who decide not to limit their sonic palette. At the same time, though, I don’t think it’s artistic cowardice on the part of musicians like Enya to explore a more limited musical style if it plays to their strengths: as I always remark when people tackle me about what I look for first and foremost when it comes to music, an adventurous spirit is laudable but always comes second to genuine emotion.
And that, again, to me, is where Enya scores. Obviously we all approach music differently, and have differing tastes, but I can never help feeling that Enya’s critics – certainly those who accuse her of producing slick, soulless muzak – have never bothered to listen to the content of her records, only the gentle croon of her voice, the choral accompaniments she favours and the wash of keyboards. The effect can certainly be hypnotic, but there is so much more there to be heard, and felt, than the casual listener will ever hear, especially if they’ve already decided they want to dislike what she does.
I’m sitting here listening to her new album, Dark Sky Island, for the second time as I write this (obviously the first time was more of a full immersion scenario, as it usual for me with most of the music I listen to). I can hear the scornful cries of Enya’s usual critics already. “It sounds just like every record she’s ever made! She’s singing in a made-up language!” (That’s the Loxian language, by the way, created for Enya’s use by lyricist Roma Ryan.) Better yet: “it’s music for people who don’t like music!” Someone posted that in the comments section of an article about the album several days ago, prior to the album’s actual release, which just shows how toxic the internet allows people to be sometimes. Yes, stylistically Dark Sky Island plays to Enya’s strengths: that beautiful crystalline voice retains all its ability to send chills up and down the spine; yes, it’s frequently deployed in great choral washes; yes, there are a lot of synthesisers. In many ways, then, business as usual.
“So why buy and listen to a record you’ve already heard?” I can hear people asking. It’s a futile question, really. However familiar the clothes may be, and however typical the themes of the songs are, these are new songs, saying different things. It’s a bit like saying that Suzanne Vega’s songs are basically the same because many of them are similar in the way they’re presented: that’s a style, not to be confused with the actual content. I, like so many others, keep listening to Enya’s new music because the themes – and her evident acceptance of the nature of mortality – strikes a deep chord. Echoes In Rain, the lead ‘single’ from the album, is just the latest in a line of songs that address the difficulties of grappling with these ideas in a way that lodges in your mind and, in its reassuring way, tells you that it’s only natural to think about such things. When Enya sings of the “long journey home“, that “night comes again“, and that “here comes another new day“, there’s a whole heap of subtext going on that’s nothing to do with the diurnal cycle.
So let the armchair critics scoff. I love Enya’s music: ever since I first heard (as must be the case with so many others) Orinoco Flow back in 1988, although I confess I was always a bigger fan of On Your Shore and the truly wonderful Evening Falls which still has the power to reduce me to a puddle. A couple of listens to Dark Sky Island has only served to rekindle that affection; proof that Enya’s music remains as timeless, its themes as universal, as ever. For me, whatever Enya’s own faith may be, her music can perhaps best be summed up as modern secular hymns, affecting paens to nature, to the wonders of our world and the vast glittering emptiness beyond it, providing solace and hope in our persistent humanity. There’s a reason why her song Only Time struck such a powerful chord in the wake of 9/11: it captured how we all felt in the aftermath. That song is not unique in that sense; it’s merely an example of just how powerfully Enya can capture that sense of our temporary existence and remind us that our mortality is not something to be feared or to inspire dread; it drives us all, whether we realise it or not.