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The Uncanny Valley: Enya's Watermark Revisited, 25 Years On
Luke Turner , December 13th, 2013 12:12

A quarter-century since the release of Enya's hit album Watermark, Luke Turner professes his entirely non-ironic love for a beguilingly strange mainstream record that sent his musical tastes along uncanny paths

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I was never really into pop music as a kid, and would sometimes watch The Chart Show or Top Of The Pops with the volume turned right down. My dad used to listen to Capital Gold in the car, occasionally banging the steering wheel and exclaiming "great number", and there were any number of Wesleyan hymns (magnificent), contemporary praise music (less so) and, always, Leonard Cohen. My deep, enduring, entirely non-ironic love for Enya's gazillion-selling, buy-myself-a-castle-across-the-valley-from-Bono LP Watermark, a record that I still find deeply affecting to this day, probably connects elements of all the above.

Enya Ní Bhraonáin's first music came with her family as part of the hugely successful Clannad. Dissatisfied with her role in the group, she quit in 1982 and teamed up with the band's former manager Nicky Ryan and his wife Roma, a poet. Although there was little commercial interest in what they were doing - the trio were broke and and recording in a garden shed - their songwriting swiftly began to develop. "I started writing instrumentals but Roma pointed out they were very visual, so she started writing lyrics," Enya told The Times in 2005. "And Nicky had this idea of creating a wall of sound and started multi-tracking my voice." This led to commissions to provide music for 1984 film The Frog Prince and TV series The Celts, which attracted the attention of Warner Music chairman Rob Dickens, who signed her, saying "Sometimes the company is there to make money, and sometimes it’s there to make music. Enya’s the latter."

As I was buying Watermark digitally yesterday, my colleague (and fellow Enya fan) Rory Gibb joked "sure you can't pick it up on Boomkat? They've loads of that sort of thing these days". And he's a point. I've actually been planning to write an In Defence Of Enya feature for the Quietus since the very day we started the site. For years, saying you liked Enya was enough to get you laughed out of town. Recently, though, her implicit presence has been everywhere (whether intentional or not). A recent example would be Julia Holter's 'Horns Surrounding Me', a kissing cousin to Watermark's 'Cursum Perfico'. Or how about early Laurel Halo, Julianna Barwick, Grouper; even new Burial track 'Rival Dealer' has an Enya passage, as if his night bus had got lost up a country lane. She's surely ripe for a reappraisal.

Perhaps much of the derision directed at Watermark over the years has come thanks to the millstone around its neck - the entirely un-representative 'Orinocho Flow', with it's icily plinking keys and lyrics "from the North to the South, Ebudæ into Khartoum / from the deep sea of Clouds to the island of the moon" that my brain used to get muddled up with and bootleg the "scaramoosh, scaramoosh, will you do the fandango" from Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. (An unpleasant consequence). For all its hundreds of thousands of sales, and the Top Of The Pops performance that made them, that track distracts from the quiet, clever grace of much of the rest of the album, which recalls traditional Celtic folk, sacred early music and world music - which, let us not forget, was then held in its stuffy, separate ghetto. To label and denigrate this as new age is lazy too - Enya herself dismissed the term as "marketing", and I'd argue that Watermark is no more crystals and wind charms and whimsy than much of Sigur Ros' output. While a record with clear Celtic origins and Enya always proud of her roots, there's no misty-eyed evoking of some shamrock 'n' leprechaun 'auld country' here, with songs delivered in English, Irish and Latin.

'On Your Shore' and 'Exile' are both gorgeous hymnals, the latter gliding downstream on flute and organ drones. 'Storms In Africa' has a great loom, the curvature of the earth appearing from Mir, that sort of thing, ending with great rattling drums and chants. It's not a million miles from the section of Fuck Buttons' current set where Ben Power starts clobbering away on a tom. The finest track of all is 'Cursum Perficio', with its strident, thundering chant.

Looking back, perhaps some of this clear pomposity (and I see nothing wrong with pomposity) comes from overproduction, with sometimes just a little too much 80s gloss and sheen on the strings and Enya's vocals. Yet, essentially, Watermark is a deeply weird album in the context of its bright and garish era, and as well as that a strongly and confidently female album. It also stands out as a record inspired by spiritual music in a mainstream pop world that has in recent years chosen to end the centuries-old musical dialogue between the secular and religious, the sacred and profane. 

I find it fascinating that Watermark was released on the same day as Talk Talk's superlative Spirit Of Eden. Arguably, they're records cut from a very similar cloth, with similar evocations and textures, though Watermark was of course at heart a pop album, and Spirit Of Eden the sound of a group tacking ever further into the avant-garde.

Listening back to Watermark now is a strange experience. Like any music from childhood, it has a powerful ability to take me back: to car journeys through the British landscape, the orange baked beans of traffic lights over the moors, trees caught in the headlights, or enduring the prosaic surroundings of my satellite tow and dreaming of being in a place of wind and water, mountains, marsh and sky. The gunmetal paint and blobs of glue that disfigure that old cassette case also recall endless plays while applying toxic paint and cellulose dope to model aircraft - I suspect Watermark's more psychedelic qualities might have been revealed during those innocent headrushes. I don't really believe in the separation of music into false binaries of credible and authentic versus naff and hollow pop, and guilty pleasures are a nonsense. Musical taste is an aesthetic continuum, and listening back to Watermark now I can trace the evolution of my interests from Enya not to Julia Holter and her ilk, but through The Cure's Disintegration and Slowdive to the living otherworlds of Coil, Carter Tutti, Grumbling Fur and These New Puritans. Looking back with hindsight, Watermark marked the beginning of my own journey, from otherworldly pop to entirely stranger musical pastures.

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charlie f
Dec 13, 2013 5:24pm

a brave article. a perennial mums' and dads' favourite for many years and possibly why it was derided at the time and revived today. it was my partner who got me to listen to enya again with new ears and the connection to Holter, Halo, Barwick and co is definitely felt here. what with Haim currently summoning up that other firm family car album 'Get Close' by the Pretenders, it definitely feels like the late-80s pop scene is back in mode.

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Dec 13, 2013 5:28pm

I've always thought Enya owes Lisa Gerrard for the major label interest, and Lisa owes Enya for the second career in film scoring

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Dec 13, 2013 6:12pm

A timely piece in a year where one of the best reissues has been that 'I Am The Center' comp on Light In The Attic, and all the cool kids are banging on about Emerald Web. When the Quietus start praising Enya I think its safe to say that anything goes these days. I always thought that King Creosote and Jon Hopkins album sounded like Clannad.

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Luke Turner
Dec 13, 2013 6:48pm

In reply to RJC:

The artwork here is not dissimilar to that on Coil's Musick To Play In The Dark

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Post-Punk Monk
Dec 13, 2013 7:30pm

I came to Enya years after hearing Coil and Chris + Cosey. What's my excuse? Say what you will about the doggerel that is "Orinoco Flow," but it was the first track that ever made me cry. Not just get misty-eyed, but when the video came on VH-1, sometime about the fifth time I'd heard it, it actually provoked a sob-fest like nothing else had at the time. I bit for the album, but never connected strongly to it, that reaction notwithstanding. So I got rid of it, years ago. "Cursum Perficio" was pretty unique, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that I know massage therapists who forbid Enya in their homes! For anyone who likes Enya's sound, I recommend listening to Molly Nilsson. She has a similar, elegant, poised-yet-wall-of-sound vibe, but the actual songs sport great lyrics [not that they're necessary].
For further rumination on the Fresh New Sound of Yesterday®

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Dec 14, 2013 9:54am

At last! Someone with the courage yet precision to rightly hail this album of Enya's - and only this one - as a thing of value. Tracks such as 'Evening Falls', 'On Your Shore', 'Exile' and 'Na Laetha Geal M'Oige' have a genuinely melancholic yearning. 'Miss Clare Remembers' first appeared on a release by the Touch label lest we forget. A shame that ''S Fagain Mo Bhaile' recorded around the same time didn't make the cut; another excellent track in the vein of the four above. The greatest shame is that the the trio immediately - and whatever they may say, cynically - gave up exploring any new ground, rehashing the same handful of Roland D50 synth sounds for the subsequent albums. They xeroxed the Watermark sound ad nauseam, all the while diluting that which made this album special - the somewhat icy, melancholic feel - for increasingly kitsch, cuddly signifiers. Just like Luke Turner, this lead me onto unlikely paths in the following years, not least starting with the final Talk Talk releases.

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Dec 14, 2013 9:56am

Oh, and the reinforce what already been mentioned, 'Orinoco Flow' is utter bollocks.

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Dec 14, 2013 10:06am

Hm. That wasn't really a sentence was it? Still, I'm fairly sure the gist of it is comprehensible.

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Dec 14, 2013 6:20pm

I prefer Shepherd Moons as an album. That could be down to Orinoco Flow, a track that I would always fast forward through.

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Dec 14, 2013 9:47pm

Quintessential mom album but I love it anyway. The "Orinoco Flow" video really takes things to the next level, it's a Thomas Kinkade come to life (and we all know he's a hipster touchstone)

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Ferrara Brain Pan
Dec 16, 2013 5:50pm

I had the first three or four albums by Miss Enya in my collection all those years ago, long since disowned. Thanks for encouraging me to go download this one and give it another listen, and I am not at all sorry I did so. It made me all dewy-eyed 'n shit with sweet regrets of brighter days... :"(

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Gavern Lyall
Dec 17, 2013 1:37am

There's a typo in this article it's "Orinoco Flow". The thing about Enya's music is that it is completely original and timeless. The quality of the recording is as good today as it was back then thanks to her Sound Engineer and Producer Nicky Ryan, who as a young man actually built a stage with big speakers under it so the deaf girls at St. Mary's could "hear" music. Enya's music is threefold, it appeals very deeply to those who connect with the voice and soul of the music, and live in it, and then to those who use it to relax and finally to those who cannot hear anything but mushy noise (sadly usually brain dead people) wink! But Enya has sold so many albums without ever having to have a concert or perform live to promote the music. I don't know of any other artist who has reached such gigantic proportions that could claim the same. But whatever your taste in music and whatever you enjoy listening to, one thing for certain is that Enya is a very unique force of music in this world, no one else takes the time and effort it takes to layer your vocals hundreds of times at different pitches to just make one song, no other artist I know has that discipline because it takes years to make an enya album, and to those of us who can appreactiate the gateway that technique opens in our minds, well it's just pure bliss. To those who can't "feel" that well they can certainly appreciate the same or similar feeling with the artists they love. With Enya, it's about Music, not glitz and glam, not headlines, not drugs, or sex or ego, it's about music, and these days that is rare. Enya for those interested is recording right now and will be releasing an album in due time. Every one of her albums has sold itself and been a hit, so will this one.

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Dec 17, 2013 9:55am

Enya's problem was always the way she was marketed. Her 'Mum at M&S' image was never going to get her into the record collection of young tastemakers, which is a shame because she could have had greater recognition if she/her marketing team hadn't chosen to depict her as a kind of pastel Gaelic Celene Dion. According to the owner of my local secondhand vinyl shop, this album has always sold to stereophiles, due to the quality of the production.

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A. Casey
Dec 17, 2013 2:32pm

As an Irishman I find myself irked by how we're being increasingly represented by gobby stand-up comics and chessy boybands not to mention a whole host of idiots in the media who trade on their accents.
It's disgraceful that the more introspective and intelligent side of the Irish is being negated, even though it is every bit as integral to our national personality as dancing reels and drinking pints.
The Irish musicians of the eighties were making music that was thoughtful and enigmatic and also timeless and it's good that it's merits are still recognised.

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Dec 28, 2013 7:28pm

In reply to :

Just goes to show how much you know about enya and her music - nothing.

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Jan 7, 2014 4:37pm

Hahahaha @ the completely dickish reply

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Jan 15, 2014 5:00pm

i think many of us pine for the age when Orinoco Flow could be a hit. if it was ever over played, that time is over - it's a great song. sad to hear called a 'miss' or 'distraction' on the record. the way i see it, re-appreciating the album would include re-hearing the album as something the artist originally intended.

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Jan 15, 2014 5:04pm

...a B-side opener

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Jan 15, 2014 11:58pm

In reply to Josh:

There's some weird 'i only like the album not the massive hit single' snobbery going on here. Orinoco Flow is one of those baffling, brilliant moment when truly strange music resonates with a mass audience. Like Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush or Malcolm Mclaren and other lesser known one hit oddities. This article prompted me to listen to Watermark, and contrary to most opinion here, I find it mostly predictable and anodyne compared to the thrilling bonkersness of Orinoco Flow.

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Jamie Upton
Jan 22, 2014 8:28pm

I still quite firmly believe that Sigur Ros is Enya in disguise. Same sound, and more importantly same handwriting. I always thought that one day she'd pull off her mask and laugh at the people who bought SR's music while dissing hers.

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boogy board
Jan 25, 2014 2:58pm

Grimes' 'Genesis' kinda has a 'Storms In Africa' feel.

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György B.
Dec 1, 2015 4:45am

In reply to Phil:


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György B.
Dec 1, 2015 4:50am

In reply to György B.:

..however I don't know why you rank K. Bush as on hit oddity.

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Apr 14, 2016 7:42pm

I just cant explain what enya's music does to me. Its magical

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