It seems somehow insufficient to describe Enya as a singer—just as it wouldn’t be right to describe, say, Jesus as a charismatic fella with a gift for storytelling. Enya is: a gravitational force from the Emerald Isle who’s dominated the world-music charts for several decades, a mysterious sprite who lives in an actual castle, the melodic accompaniment of choice for slightly crunchy Boomers. Enya is also: a synonym for uncool music, South Park’s source of despair, and the soundtrack to a perturbing, vaguely New Age-infused period in the ’90s when the Irish Tiger was roaring. (Michael Flatley was stomping all over Broadway, Pierce Brosnan was James Bond, and Bono was saving Africa with neon-tinted spectacles and Project Red™-branded goods. It wasn’t culture’s proudest moment.)
All that acknowledged, there’s something enormously soothing about Enya’s music—possibly because it sounds like a humanized version of the whalesong they play when you’re getting a massage, or because her lyrics are poetic gibberish, or because her slightly distorted vocals make it sound like Mother Earth herself is struggling to be heard over the bells and the 57 violinists playing the same note. On the new Enya album, Dark Sky Island, there’s a song called “The Forge of the Angels,” and indeed that’s what it sounds like—as if a fleet of haloed beings are making things out of celestial iron while Enya breathes one syllable over and over again and a particularly clumsy piano player tries to master the three notes he’s been tasked with repeatedly adding to the mix.
This is the first new Enya album in seven years. Her last record, 2008’s And Winter Came …, sold more than three million copies, not just because Enya’s been savvy enough in recent years to release all her music right before Christmas so people can buy it for their elderly relatives. And Winter Came … even featured cover art of Enya in a long white ballgown, standing in the snow and holding on to a pure white horse, its mane braided into magical knots. “Aurally, it’s like curling up in front of a log fire with a glass of your favorite Amontillado,” wrote the BBC, proving that Enya’s power subdues even the mighty critical heft of Britain’s most cherished institution. Maybe, if Enya really tried, she could calm down Vladimir Putin, or Donald Trump, or even Guy Fieri. It’s really hard to get het up about things when the dulcet, studio-elongated tones of an Irish chanteuse have lowered your blood pressure to ultra-marathoner levels.
Enya loyalists can rest easy that Dark Sky Island is a distinctly Enyaish album, and that there’s no drastic change in direction or cultural appropriation inspired by her recent move to France. On the song “Echoes in Rain,” she sings the word “Hallelujah” over and over again while a jaunty string section plucks one of two lonely notes in the background. (There’s an odd, seemingly improvised piano solo in the middle that sounds like one of the aforementioned forging angels might have been a jazz fan.) The title track is perhaps the one that will most evoke the glory days of A Day Without Rain and Braveheart. “Come back to me, come back to me,” Enya croons, while what seems to be the opening notes from “Unchained Melody” plays. (To be clear, the opening notes from “Unchained Melody” also feature in another song on the album, “So I Could Find My Way.”)
This is, as should be obvious, music from another era. While listening, you may find yourself thinking of the love affair between Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in Far and Away, or of the time Harrison Ford helped the Amish build a barn in Witness, or even of the scene in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo where Stellan Skarsgård decides to play “Orinoco Flow” while he’s torturing Daniel Craig to demonstrate the depths of his sadism. But it’s also reassuring in its familiarity. Musicians may grow, and evolve, and take their sound in different directions from time to time; Enya is not one of them. Despite her assurances to The Independent that she feels like her albums are totally different every time, and that she’s broadly influenced by artists including Green Day and P Diddy, her studio is still very much using synthesizers from 1983, and her voice is as fresh and angelic as e’er it was. She’s sold 75 million records by warbling softly over the musical equivalent of someone drumming their knuckles on a coffee table. Why stop now?
In Enya’s defense, this album will undoubtedly give pleasure to millions of people, curled up with their imported sherry and their cashmere hoodies and their dreams of a magical isle seasoned with mist and mellow tunefulness. And, as has been mentioned, Enya is less a musician than a cultural phenomenon, insidiously seeping into therapist’s offices and boutiques and “relaxing” Spotify playlists. She’s been an obvious influence on artists including Imogen Heap, and a less obvious one on Nicki Minaj, who touted Enya as one of the biggest musical inspirations on her album The Pinkprint.
Dark Sky Island might not be as obviously resonant as Shepherd Moons, or Watermark; it arrives, too, in an era that’s probably far too dark and twisty to appreciate her work with any kind of earnest effort. But maybe not. Maybe Enya can soothe a weary, overworked, smartphone-addicted, EDM-exhausted populace with her Latin chants and Gaelic grace. Regardless, she’s back, and as the woman herself would say, hallelujah.