On the long journeys through Ireland that punctuated my childhood like bouts of the flu, my father played songs from a small group of classic albums. Many of them would be familiar to any Irishman of that time. The merry riot of Dubliners, “Live at the Point” by Christy Moore and the serious and heartbreaking confessionals of Eleanor McEvoy and Mary Black all made up the soundtrack of our meandering journeys through the endless shades of green that formed the Irish countryside. But none of these artists struck me as my father’s personal favorite, Enya.
My father’s fascination with Enya was mysterious. His music was unlike anything else he was listening to, but it also wasn’t like the music someone else makes. Enya’s music is imbued with an aura of mysticism so nebulous that it borders on the occult; nevertheless, he delighted a man so Catholic that he interrupted family vacations with joyous visits to Marian shrines. The worldwide success of this blend of traditional Irish music and new-age electro was unlikely given that the bulwark of its fandom, in Ireland at least, seemed to be people like my father: rank traditionalists entering their fifties. , of which few would have tolerated synthesizers, arpeggiated strings or heavy reverberation in any other sound context.
I, a young fan of ambient music, loved Enya for its place in the canon of this genre. I was mesmerized by the folding synthscapes of “Caribbean Blue” or “Sumiregusa (Wild Violet)”, which struck my childhood ears like probes from a distant planet. Its melodies repeated and intertwined; her voice sparkled and shone, both new and old, alien and familiar.
It just bothered me to see my dad moved in the same way. After all, even Aphex Twin’s most calming ambient works often forced him to unplug my CD player, as if their non-traditional musical forms could damage our wiring. How, then, could Enya make this same man cry?
It helped that she was local. As a child, Eithne Brennan grew up not far from Mullennan, my home, in one of the most prestigious families in the history of traditional Irish music. She left the Brennans’ group, Clannad, at a young age, strengthened herself on Japanese synths, and created a strange musical form of her own. By the time I was a teenager, Clannad’s shy little sister had become one of the best-selling recording artists on Earth.
In the spiraling melody of “Aldebaran” there is euphoria and gravity, as well as something that approaches terror.
When I was a teenager, Enya was extremely famous but never particularly cool, at least not among people my age. I loved Enya for the sound worlds she mapped out for her listeners: filled with pomp and grandeur, yes, but also with rivers of deep and intense wonder. I found in his music that same pinch of infinity that I felt while listening to “An Ending (Ascent)” by Brian Eno, or “Polynomial-C” by Aphex Twin. Yet when I tried to portray her as a peer of these artists, the looks I received were blank and full of pity. The images that spouted out of Enya’s album covers and videos were infallibly serious, both too campy to be serious and too serious to be camped. Despite all its peculiar complexity, my classmates rated Enya easy listening, on par with Pan Muzak’s flute.
This skepticism was likely due to the mythological visual style Enya built around her: she lived in a castle, rarely gave interviews, or performed live. Her videos present her as an ethereal being, constantly surrounded by 400 lighted candles, carrying a wardrobe bequeathed to her by a fairy queen who had too many velvet cloaks lying around and hated to see them get lost. This imagery made Enya a world of her own.
Nothing characterizes this more than my favorite Enya track, the seductive “Aldebaran”. It first rose to prominence as part of the soundtrack she composed for the BBC documentary “The Celts”, a 10-episode series that told the story of the Celtic people from prehistoric times to 1987. With Irish-language voices delivered to Enya’s breath, “Aldebaran” blends the Irish past with the future through a crazy story of intergalactic journeys. The production is rhythmless and always sinuous, surrounded by a corusing and arpeggiated riff which tumbles between major and minor chords in a cycle of atmospheric tumult. In her spiraling melody there is euphoria and gravity, as well as something approaching terror (she dedicated the song to Ridley Scott). Beneath the song’s chords and panting vocals, an alien undercurrent has smuggled aboard – a reminder that in space no one can hear you sing.
Enya’s music has other unique attractions. If you visit his Twitter page, you might be recommended not only Phil Collins and Tina Turner, but also Bob Ross: even the algorithm seems to know his work is contemplative and therapeutic. Enya’s characteristics – angelic wash of reverberation, voice ready for ASMR; its deeply textured and layered synths – were soothing to me on long trips as a child. They still offer a portal to long-dead worlds and distant stars, but also a city a few parishes from mine.
Nowadays when I recommends Enya, and “Aldebaran” in particular, the ears are not as deaf as they used to be. The cosmos can now listen to her whispered call to wake up, whether she knows it or not. I hope she does, and that somewhere, dressed in velvet, Enya sometimes still plays “Aldebaran”. Bringing another candle to another window, could she look out the stone walls of her castle and once again point her face to the stars?