(Note: You asked for something different. You can only blame yourself now…)
I remember the first day of my freshman year of high school at Loyola in LA. First Period. Algebra 1. My teacher was Mr. Walter, a 7ft. rectangle of a man whose other duty was coaching JV baseball. Walter and his 2 brothers had all gone to Loyola – all three of them were renowned sportsmen at a Division 1 school. You could feel the testosterone condense in the air around the guy.
Imagine my surprise when, during a short quiz, I hear the wafts of a bouncy over-produced voice and synthetic strings – Mr. Walter was playing Enya in class, claiming it to be “the best thinking music”.
And this continued for the entire semester. Every time there was a test or quiz, I would see him stride giant steps to the back of the room, hear the click of a CD player, and the same album (a ‘Best Of’ comp) would play wherever it left off from the last time. Any chance he got, he would start to play that record – I even remember him switching it on once during a school-wide lockdown. With the lights out and blinds drawn, news was passed from classroom to classroom about a potential gun-toting liquor store robber outside. I thought for a while of how disappointing that this was to be the soundtrack to my bullet-riddled demise.
Maybe some people find Enya to be relaxing – poor Mr. Walter and his narrow music choices are definitely proof of that. Certainly, each track you turn to boasts a wall of string harmonies and pizzicato sections, but instead of playing like the soundtrack to a distant Celtic waterfall, it sounds like a soundtrack of a home movie of a waterfall.
But first things first: the artwork. There are only a few elements to recognize in this cover art – props, color tone, and the artist herself. The props on the front cover are old; they’re scratched and worn and used. Everything about the furniture and fixtures screams ‘old world’, from the unvarnished floorboards and the parchment-colored walls to the old pub bench and damaged painting. Note, though, that the color palette in all of these elements is extremely limited. Though largely muted, there is no degradation in the quality of the picture. Everything floats in a misty blue-gray haze, which fits with some aberration with the image the artist herself.
In the photo, Enya sits on said nasty bench with richer darks and cleaner lights from her velvet skirt and pale skin, respectively. She leans slightly forward and slightly sideways, with her shoulders crooked and her skirt trailing. Her visage is locked in a permanent Mona Lisa smile, but there is no mystery present as with the Mona Lisa itself. It’s an posture and expression of calmness and lucidity, not wretched ecstatic tension. This is New Age music, after all.
How could I write about Enya and not include this song? “Only Time” is an existential inquiry into the chaos of human existence. It’s neither inspirational nor nihilistic, and so it makes for a perfect mourning song. Searching the internet unearths piles of tribute videos set to gauzy photos of nature and tragedy – many of the latter being 9/11-related. The music is soft and flowing, matching the overall feel of the album. It’s the song that sold 7 million copies of the album in the US, 15 million copies worldwide. Its message is solidly put and genuine, scoring the woes of the then-newly emerging 21st century. Though I’ve never been a big fan of this song, I can’t deny that it hit the nail on the head.
Then there’s “Flora’s Secret”. The public might’ve bought A Day Without Rain expecting “Only Time” repeated a dozen times, and tracks like this one gave them just that but with much content and sincerity. From the synthetic violins to the woozily-dubbed chorus effect, this song signals the milking of an aesthetic for profit. A song about flowers seems a natural fit for this album, and the production matches the rest of it – art artificial and all about itself, but not in the Warhol kind of way.
This is another example of album art matching its sound and content, but not in a very positive way. Where the photoshoot director wanted props, she got props. Where the producer wanted effects, he got effects. A Day Without Rain is a prime example of a commercial record, and while Enya wrote all the songs herself, she also performed them all herself, using mixers and multiple channels to create a fuller sound. Everything about it is saccharine from the posed photograph to the keyboard violin plucks.
Mr. Walter was right – Enya is good thinking music. But for me, the thinking being done was about how ridiculous the music actually was. I’m sure the music speaks volumes when performed live with an actual orchestra performing the parts, but in the studio the sound falls flat, just like the cover, whose message says, “Look how authentic I am with my Pier One bench and hastily destroyed painting.”
Album: A Day Without Rain
Tracklist & Review (Allmusic)