The Uncanny Valley: Enya’s Watermark Revisited, 25 Years On

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

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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