Enya: Dark Sky Island (2015)
I’ve just found, out, somewhat belatedly, that Enya has released a new studio album. Actually, belatedly is perhaps not quite the right word, since the album only dropped today (yesterday, Australian time). But, in a musical landscape where every release of note seems to be telegraphed months, even years in advance, on social media and online forums, it feels belated to discover an album contemporaneously with its release. Of course, Enya is notoriously reticent when it comes to social media, while not turning her reticence into a social media stunt itself either. In an era when so much 80s music, even or especially unfashionable 80s music, has come back into fashion, she’s about the last artist who hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon, refraining from anything resembling a comeback or a simulacrum of her former self. At the same time, given how voguish the new age synthscapes she pioneered have become in the works of artists like Oneohtrix Point Never, she also hasn’t tried to reinvent herself in the light of her progeny in the same way as, say, artists like New Order or the Orb, both of whom also have albums out this year. Of course, that’s not to take anything away from musical acts that do make a conscious effort to grow and evolve, nor from musical acts who have the modesty to learn from their successors, but just to say that there’s something singular about Enya that is really nothing more nor less than the singularity that has shrouded her ever since her first great albums.
In that sense, and for all the timeliness of her sound in the synth-crazed mid-10s, Enya’s music has somehow managed to sound as timeless as it did back in the late 80s and early 90s. Obviously, musical technologies date pretty quickly, but it’s possible for a sensibility to endure despite the equipment used to produce it falling out of fashion. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to exactly argue that Enya’s music is timeless in and of itself, since that presupposes an idealistic vision of art and music that I don’t really subscribe to, but instead to suggest that what makes it timeless is the elegance and economy with which it managed to distil and disclose its time. By refusing to jump on the bandwagon of 80s and early 90s nostalgia, then, Enya paradoxically insists upon the datedness of her work, a precious asset in an era in which it feels as if, on the one hand, there is nothing so dated that it can’t be reappropriated and, on the other hand, that it’s unlikely that anything produced in our own musical era is going to be allowed the luxury of dating as absolutely and categorically as someone like Enya, with even the most recent critically derided work quickly finding its way back into avant-garde (or arriere-garde) appropriation, creating a diminishing feedback loop whereby anything deemed unmusical, unsophisticated or uninteresting immediately becomes the ground for the next major musical movement. Of course, there’s a utopian possibility in all that, a gradual dissociation from musical criticism as an institution, but it does also make the sheer datedness of someone like Enya quite austere and breathtaking in its own way as well.
At the same time, while this is not a comeback album in a traditional sense, it is also the first Enya album that appears to have achieved the same musical conviction as her string of masterpieces that commenced with Enya, in 1985 (rereleased as The Celts in 1997), and concluded with The Memory of Trees, in 1995. Admittedly, this coincides exactly with my period of most frenetic Enya fandom, so I may be a little biased, but I sensed a dropoff in vision in her subsequent two studio albums, A Day Without Rain, released in 2000, and Amarantine, released in 2005. For whatever reason, these albums were devoid of the lush textures of her golden age, less balanced in their movement between percussive classical numbers and ambient ethereal mysticism and much flatter and more hesitant in their use of the synthesizer. In many ways, you might say that they clarified the inherent affinity between the analog studio and the synthesizer as an analog instrument, just as their availability for digital release seemed to compromise Enya’s imagery as well, which was intimately bound up with the cover design of her albums and album sleeves, as well as a music video media ecology that started to take on a bit of a different meaning with the onset of digital technology. It made sense, then, that her next release, 2008’s …And Winter Came, was a Christmas album rather than a studio album per se, and that it was quickly followed up by her second compilation, The Very Best of Enya. Amazingly, this is only the second compilation Enya has released over the whole of her career, and yet wheres the 1997 compilation Paint the Sky With Stars had felt very much of a piece with her golden era – and actually contained two of her most beautiful singles of the 90s, the title track and “Only If…” – the 2009 compilation felt like a classicising gesture, relegating Enya to the lofty stratosphere of singers who no longer need to release studio albums, and are no longer really expected to either. Not only did it not contain any new material, but it only sold 1 million copies, as opposed to the 12 million copies of its predecessor. Sure, album sales have changed in the new millennium, but new age seems to be one area in which torrenting hasn’t fully changed the retail landscape, just as Enya seems to have the kind of fanbase that are attached to the materiality of her albums as albums.
All that makes Dark Sky Island all the more surprising and delightful, although it’s perhaps even more surprising and delightful that this hasn’t been explicitly or extensively marketed as a comeback, a return to form or as anything other than another Enya album, with the result that the seven years since her last studio album – or ten, if you put it at Amarantine rather than …And Winter Came – just feels like the gradual decelaration of pace for an artist as they start to contemplate old age, as well as the time needed to craft a more sober and contemplative vision of the world in the process. In a musical landscape in which there is more and more pressure on older artists to shore up their reputation through contemporary releases – someone like Neil Young has become more prolific than he ever was in his heyday – it’s easy to forget that late work can often take more time to perfect than early work, even if time is precisely is what is at stake. There’s something apt, then, in the way in which I found out about Dark Sky Island – in real time, belated but somehow contemporary, too soon, too late – that has suddenly made the rest of Enya’s discography – and my own adolescence – feel very present once again, which I’ll discuss in a follow-up post on Watermark, Shepherd Moons and The Memory of Trees, what they meant to a gay teenager growing up in the 90s, and how they shaped my gayness as well.
Of course, the million dollar question here is: what is the new Enya album actually like? And the simple truth is that I haven’t really had a chance to process it yet. Having only found out about it in the last twenty-four hours, I haven’t been able to get my hands on it as a whole, instead listening to isolated singles on YouTube and other websites. In some ways, that also feels appropriate, since I first got into Enya through singles rather than through any sustained attachment to the albums themselves, although it was only a matter of time before Enya opened my eyes to what a sustained atmospheric album could actually mean, giving me a lifelong taste for ambient album experiences that made me feel like I’d come home when I first discovered Brian Eno’s Music For Airports many years later. In fact, one of the ways you could classify Enya’s achievement is to say that she articulated the first great ambient music philosophy since Eno, as well as rivalling Eno in the ingenuity with which she managed to bridge ambient and pop sensibilities. Although Eno is one of my most cherished musicians, I wonder whether you could even go a step further and argue that Enya outdid Eno in the way in which she managed to bridge these ambient and pop registers on single albums, to the point where there are no albums of hers that are exclusively ambient or exclusively poppy. Think an Eno career in which every album somehow managed to distill the best of Music For Airports and the best of, say, Here Come The Warm Jets, and you get a bit of a sense of Enya’s achievement. To my knowledge, they’ve never collaborated together, but perhaps that’s for the best, since the singularity of their distinct – if comparable – achievements could only be diluted in the process.
Looking back, I realised I still haven’t answered the question of what the album is like, which is perhaps because I just want to stay in this precious place before I really get to “know” the album for just that little bit longer. From what I’ve heard, I can say that there’s a crisper, cleaner sound than on many of Enya’s earliest albums – less synth reverb – that makes even the upbeat songs feel a little colder and glassier around the edges. At the same time, the sense of exile that pervades her work has grown stronger as well, even if it feels more disciplined at the same time, as befits possibly the last great pop star to completely refrain from social media and any kind of putative online “presence,” outdoing even Kate Bush in her sublime remoteness. Yet all that stuff seems material for a future post. For now, it’s perhaps enough to share the experience of poising on the cusp of the Enya experience itself, since there’s something about this unwillingness to either celebrate or subvert datedness that transports me back to the 80s and 90s more than any of the other nostalgia exercises in vogue at the moment. In fact, when the 80s and 90s are as timeless to your worldview as they are to Enya’s – and more on that in the next post – nostalgia doesn’t really exist at all, and the beauty of listening to the first few notes of Dark Sky Island lies in realising that there’s no need for nostalgia when the present is as ethereal and mystical as it is here.
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