Monday, April 11, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 854: Enya

This next album is one of the first CDs I owned, so back in the day it got a lot of play. I don’t put it on much anymore, and so it was nice to hear it again. It was like visiting an old friend you don’t see very often, and finding you still have a connection.

Disc 854 is….Shepherd Moons
Artist: Enya

Year of Release: 1991

What’s up with the Cover? It’s Enya herself, looking fey and mysterious. Also, distractingly beautiful.

How I Came To Know It: I heard “Orinoco Flow” on Muchmusic back in the day and liked it. When I went to buy the album (“Watermark” reviewed way back at Disc 11) it wasn’t there, but this newer release was. Not wanting to return home empty-handed I bought “Shepherd Moons” instead.

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Enya albums (her first five). Of those, “Shepherd Moons” is my favourite so I’ll rank it…#1.

Ratings: 4 stars

“Shepherd Moons” is an album that will soothe a troubled soul. It did that for me in 1991. 25 years later I’m much less troubled, but it still fills my heart with peace and calms my spirit’s rougher edges.

If that introduction sounds a little overwrought, then welcome to new age music. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, either. New age music is meant to inspire the soul and if that means your soul bubbles over a bit in a wanton display of joy, then it is working the way it’s supposed to.

Enya’s signature sound is to take Celtic and classical musical structures and fill them with an ambient quality through multiple layers of overdubbing. The result is an unearthly choir that is something more than human. It always makes me think of what elves would sound like. Enya even looks elven.

Better than any other Enya album, “Shepherd Moons” finds the perfect mix of new age production and old school Celtic mystery. Despite the inherently artificial production that goes into making the album, the songs still feel suffused with organic vitality.

Enya also makes sure the album has a strong dynamic range. A lot of new age music can drone on through the length of a full record, but Enya keeps things interesting. The high energy “Book of Days” is sandwiched between the introspective classical piano piece “No Holly for Miss Quinn” and the insular and thoughtful “Evacuee.” From opening to closing the record feels like a single art piece, rather than just a collection of songs.

That said, I have my favourites, none more so than “How Can I Keep From Singing?” Because of all the layered production, Enya’s voice can sometimes feel fuzzy, and you might be tempted to think that her vocals are entirely artificial. “How Can I Keep From Singing?” dispels this notion, with an incredible vocal performance. I also love the lyrics, which are a message of hope in a sometimes unjust world:

“When tyrants tremble in their fear
And hear their death knell ringing
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?”

Technically not a message of hope if you are a tyrant, I suppose. Anyway, listening to Enya I always get this weird feeling that all darkness has an end. She’s like Galadriel in Lothlorien giving a light to Frodo to help keep him safe on his journey. In fact, the album even has a song called “Lothlorien” which is a two minute piano piece that makes you feel like you’re walking through an enchanted forest full of elves. Yes, this music is both inspiring and nerdy.

The songs that edge into traditional Celtic forms are among my favourites. “Ebudae” has a rising rhythm that is an infectious earworm despite not being in English. It makes me feel like I’m sitting around a campfire chanting in some bygone time, except with less bugs and smoke.

Smaointe” is the last song on the record and one of my favourites. I can’t even pronounce the song’s title, but Enya’s heart-wrenching vocal carries a deep sorrow that breaks through the language barrier. The song has a Daniel-Lanois like ambience that never intrudes on its intimacy, and the Uillean Pipes (played expertly by Liam O’Flionn) provide a poignant offset to Enya’s soft and pure singing.

The only track that didn’t quite hit the mark is “Marble Halls.” This song goes one step too far into schmaltz, as Enya recounts a dream where she is incredibly wealthy, but her greatest gift remains the love of her partner. Even the melody seems a bit too dear.

Still, this is one track out of twelve and I like all the others to varying degrees. I’m not much for new age music overall, but Enya is the master of it, and “Shepherd Moons” is her finest work. For many readers, one Enya album is too many. I am sorry you feel that way. If you do decide to open your heart to just one though, make it “Shepherd Moons.”

Best tracks:  Caribbean Blue, How Can I Keep From Singing?, Ebudae, Angeles, Book of Days, Lothlorien, Smaointe

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