By Earle Hitchner
A DAY WITHOUT RAIN, by Enya. Reprise CD 9474262.
With 44 million albums sold, Donegal-born Eithne Ní Bhraonáin, known worldwide as Enya, is the most popular solo vocalist in Ireland’s history, a musician with the commercial clout of Madonna and Whitney Houston.
What makes the success of this former Clannad member (1980-82) all the more remarkable is that, unlike those two women, she never tours. Both Enya and her two constant collaborators, Nicky and Roma Ryan, cite the rigorous recording process — no sampling, just endless layering and overdubbing of Enya’s vocals and instruments — as the reason she doesn’t perform in concert. ("Angeles," a song on her 1991 album "Shepherd Moons," reportedly had almost 500 recorded vocals.)
All that meticulous studio work consumes a lot of time, which explains why it took Enya five years to release a solo album of new music, "A Day Without Rain." Hard work alone, however, doesn’t guarantee excellence or freshness, and this new release, clocking in at 34 minutes and 28 seconds, is by far her shortest and slightest.
Vocal droning, orchestral strings, and tinkling keyboards waft through many of the tracks, leaving a sonic sheen that is more pretty than purposeful. The reigning diva of New Age music and a two-time Grammy winner in the category, Enya crafts songs (with lyricist Roma Ryan) whose mist-shrouded meanings and soothing textures allow listeners to easily inject their own memories and experiences.
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But music as self-discovery (or self-therapy) becomes frustrating when pegged to compositions as vacuous as "Wild Child." A refrain like "What a day / What a day to take to / What a way / What a way / To make it through / What a day / What a day to take to / A wild child" is hard to regard as serious, though it strives to be.
"Lazy Days" is, as its title suggests, a song about happy, dreamy indolence, and the lines "One red balloon / Floats to the moon" may invoke Albert Lamorisse’s charming short film from the mid-1950s, "The Red Balloon." But that moment of graceful allusion, along with the bright image it conjures up, can’t hold back the surrounding tide of tepidity.
Twice on the album, Enya finds an effective vehicle for her rapturous, warm-hued voice. One is actually a joining of two tracks, "Tempus Vernum" and "Deora Ar Mo Chroí." The first song has a dark, almost menacing undercurrent that introduces some welcome tension, which is then relieved by the tender song it segues into, translating as "Tears on My Heart."
The other track showcasing Enya’s vocal skill at its best is the wistful "Fallen Embers." There, amid bittersweet memories, she sings with simple grace, backed unobtrusively by keyboard and strings. Less is clearly more here.
Still, "A Day Without Rain" sounds vaguely familiar — and familiarly vague.