Expect the Expected

dark-sky-island-extralarge_1444318178079When you’re the best-selling artist in Irish history, you probably don’t feel the usual pressure from the music industry to keep cranking out albums every 2 or 3 years. Such is the case with Enya, whose last album of new material came out 7 years before she returned to the scene with Dark Sky Island last year. She found inspiration for this album from Sark, the island off the Norman coast of France which was designated as the world’s first dark-sky preserve. As such, it is kept free of artificial light pollution, primarily to facilitate the study of astronomy.

The Sark theme permeates almost all aspects of the album, and links everything together as a single unit. Enya’s lyricist Roma Ryan weaves in sky and star themes throughout the songs on the album, even when the listener wouldn’t necessarily expect it. Two of the songs are also performed in Loxian, the artistic language that Ryan created for Enya’s 2005 album Amarantine and that has popped up in several of her other songs. The celestial themes crop up in those songs too, and the Loxian tongue gives them a smoother and more melodic feel than I imagine they would if Enya had performed them in English. Even the album art and music reflect the Sark motif, with the velvety navy blue/black aesthetic of the former resemble looking up at the night sky. The music on almost all of these songs has a big and expansive feel, a sort of “ten feet tall” sound that comes from leaving a lot of empty space in the recordings.

In many ways, the first single, “Echoes in Rain,” sticks out on the album. It has the fastest tempo and is played in a more staccato style than any of the other tracks. I think this is why I like it the best. While the rest of the album sticks to the classic Enya sound, this song continues the exploration of the style that she first showed in “Trains and Winter Rains,” the lead single from her 2008 album And Winter Came… I think it also underscores aspects of the album that I didn’t care for. Enya picked her formula a long time ago and largely sticks with it on Dark Sky Island. It’s easier to do that when one’s formula is as unique as hers (name one other New Age artist you know… I dare you), but this album still left me wanting to hear her branch out into different styles, or even different textures and sounds within her style. After “Echoes in Rain,” the album enters a slightly repetitive period where a lot of the songs blend together. Some of the instrumental lines seem cribbed from her earlier work, too. For instance, the melody of “Astra et Luna,” is nearly a carbon copy of “One by One,” one of the better songs from her 2000 album A Day Without Rain.

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The smooth navy blue/black aesthetic is even reflected in the lyric video for “Echoes in Rain,” as this still from the video demonstrates.

That’s not to say that Dark Sky Island isn’t enjoyable, though. Part of the fun of an Enya album is trying to figure out exactly what instruments she’s using throughout the songs, as she sometimes makes atypical choices that aren’t immediately obvious to the ear. “Sancta Maria” features a harpsichord-like sound in the melody, and “So I Could Find My Way” has an instrument that I think is a hammer dulcimer. The latter song also embodies what I’ve always liked about Enya’s vocal style; she can sound vulnerable or strong, often within the same song, without really changing the timbre or texture of her voice. It’s an impressive talent that only the most talented singers possess. She’s also able to use the lower register of her voice to complement and propel the rhythm section of a song forward, as most prominently heard on “The Loxian Gates.”

Despite the occasional repetitiveness, I think this album merits a buy it, especially if you’re an Enya fan. If you’re just getting into her music, maybe sample my track picks below before buying it, as they contain the best of the album. Is it among her best? Maybe, maybe not. But it is certainly worth a listen.

“Echoes in Rain”

“The Humming…”

“The Loxian Gates”

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