Brian Eno famously used to write his lyrics – or claim he did, at any rate – on the basis of sound rather than meaning: if the phonemes danced in service to the song, that was good enough for him and what they actually said could go hang. I get something of that vibe from “Orinoco Flow” – the arrangement’s pert staccatos bubbling up into Enya’s cute, clpped phrasing. But she corrals her syllables into something that does make sense: a hymn to travel and motion for their own sake.
If you’re going to delight in the way words sound, the Atlas is a good place to start, a great soup of bizarre and evocative names. Some excellent tracks centre themselves on lists of places – Saint Etienne’s “Girl VII” and the JAMS’ “It’s Grim Up North”, Ian Dury’s “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”. “Rhythm Stick” is a kind of lairy, deliciously dangerous cousin of “Orinoco Flow” in the way it’s a travelogue of teeth, tongue and lip as much as of place. “Flow” also reminds me of Kate Bush’s “Sat In Your Lap”, particularly the urgent finale – “A trip to Mecca! Tibet or Jedda!”
These are rich comparisons for a song to live up to, of course – and they’re meant to indicate that “Orinoco Flow” is interesting and unusual, not imply it’s a masterpiece. But it’s better than I thought it was. My lazy man’s impressions of Enya heavily feature ideas like “Celtic”, “hippy-dippy”, and “wind chimes” but here it’s only the mist of backing vox that put me off: when the song loses its light rhythmic impetus on the middle eight they help bog it down, and it never totally recovers.
All the mouthplay on “Orinoco” is in the service of simple, relaxed prettiness, and over repeat listens that can lose its appeal. But the song has plenty of ideas, and an airy freshness which must have been a pleasant surprise on 1988 radios. An admirably playful record, even if it’s not one for everyday use.