Enya’s ”Shepherd Moon” re-reviewed
In November 1991, Reprise Records released Enya’s Shepherd Moons, the follow-up to the Irish singer’s 1988 album, Watermark. Within the confines of the Entertainment Weekly music department, we did what most critic types did at the time: We gave a quick listen to its pristine, immaculately produced surfaces and then made sarcastic jokes about Celtic New Age stars who resemble Demi Moore. When we begrudgingly realized a review was called for, we relegated Shepherd Moons to a quick paragraph and a B grade and thought that was the end of it.
Shows how much we know. Almost a year and a half later, the album still sells at the rate of roughly 18,000 copies a week — 2 million copies so far — and continues to linger on the fringes of the Billboard Top 40 album chart. ”That’s pretty strong,” says Mike Fine, CEO of SoundScan, the company that tabulates record sales. ”Most artists don’t generate that type of sales 75 weeks after release.” It has also grabbed the No. 1 spot on the Billboard New Age chart for 47 consecutive weeks. Watermark, meanwhile, has sold more than 2 million.
Sales figures tell only half the story, though. Enya (née Eithne Ni Bhraonain) has become something of a soundtrack for our lives. Her music can be heard in restaurants and bookstores, on TV commercials, and on the soundtracks of movies like Far and Away, Green Card, and Toys. A few weeks back, the Shepherd Moons track ”Caribbean Blue” (a breathy, upbeat waltz that personifies everything Enya) popped up as background music on, of all things, the surf-and-mirth TV series Baywatch.
Sleeper albums aren’t new in pop. As of this writing, The Best of Van Morrison and Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine are loitering on the pop charts long after they should have departed (150 and 109 weeks, respectively), and rock’s ultimate cult item, Pink Floyd’s 1973 headphone symphony The Dark Side of the Moon, has just been given the deluxe treatment for its 20th birthday.
Maybe it has something to do with the word moon, but like that album, Shepherd Moons is more than a chart mainstay; clearly it has tapped into our collective psyche. How else do you explain the way people who normally hate anything even remotely New Age — like Top 40 fans and college-radio mavens — are drawn to Enya? Maybe a colleague nailed it when she said Enya’s interchangeable albums (including her tentative, eponymous debut from 1986) are a form of mass hypnosis: Beneath the records’ crystalline grooves are voices telling us to listen to Enya, listen to Enya, listen to Enya.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure of hearing the music, a quick sonic description: Although it is called New Age, Enya’s vacuum-packed music is more like pop with classical pretensions. She sings — or, more like it, breathes — in a pure, virginal soprano, occasionally in Gaelic. She then records up to 200 additional vocal parts and layers them for a gothic-choir effect. Other songs are strictly instrumentals. In either case, Enya’s glistening cascades of piano and synthesizers sound soothingly like a gently flowing waterfall. (That could explain why Shepherd Moons sells best on the water-loving West Coast.) The combined effect is both captivating and elusive. The frail melodies seem to slip through your fingers, repeatedly drawing you back into the record in the vain hope that this time you will pin it down. Much like Enya herself, in fact, who rarely does interviews and keeps a low profile in Ireland when not recording.
No, sleeper albums don’t get any sleepier than Shepherd Moons. But at the same time, Enya’s music isn’t nearly as numbing as anesthetics like Kenny G. Her relaxing melodies are a retreat — from more clattering forms of pop like rap and alternative rock, from the barrage of media and hype in contemporary culture, from the struggles and annoyances of daily life. But as escapes go, her music is surprisingly realistic. Beneath the aural beauty lies the forlorn, brooding pessimism common to the Irish. In album photos, Enya is often shown in stark black-and-white shots standing before rocky cliffs and windswept beaches. The love songs are predominantly mournful (”Who then can warm my soul?/Who can quell my passion?” she murmurs on Watermark‘s ”Exile”). And though she may acknowledge the world’s injustices on Moon‘s ”How Can I Keep From Singing?” she doesn’t sound terribly convinced that her music can change anything.
You don’t have to be Celtic to appreciate those sentiments, which may be the key to the ongoing success of Shepherd Moons. Enya’s fans don’t kid themselves: Her music may be escapist, but sorrow, loss, and displacement are lurking around the corner — often just like in life itself. On second thought, Shepherd Moons is an A-.