Jul 10

ENYA – “Orinoco Flow”

FT + Popular95 comments • 8,229 views

#618, 29th October 1988

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.



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  1. 61
    Rory on 22 Jul 2010 #

    Um, revelation, not relevation. (Edit, damn you, edit!)

  2. 62
    Rory on 22 Jul 2010 #

    Mulling over this notion that music that refers to exotic (non-Western?) places ought to reflect the indigenous music of that place… so the only valid musical response to a landscape is that of the people who got there first? Or those who lived there first? Or those who live there now?

    What about all those Celtic music CDs with standing stones on their covers, which probably sound nothing like the music made by their neolithic builders, and probably weren’t recorded in Orkney?

    I can’t hear a single tin whistle in “How to Disappear Completely”. They probably never actually floated down the Liffey, either.

  3. 63
    thefatgit on 22 Jul 2010 #

    #55…your comment got me thinking, but unfortunately my brain bubbles up with movie music like Max Richter’s “Sarajevo” or Ry Cooder’s “Paris,Texas” which is unhelpful because they evoke visual memories from their cinematic sources. But these images are projected ideas from someone else’s interpretation of a place, rather than first-hand experience, so maybe they count after all.

  4. 64
    thefatgit on 22 Jul 2010 #

    #62 Now my mind is awash with the possibilities of what might have been if The Chieftains had access to an ondes martenot.

  5. 65
    katstevens on 22 Jul 2010 #

    Ecuador by Sash! is clearly the best example of this sort of thing (surely already on Steve’s list). I am going to spend the rest of the afternoon listening to Sash! I think.

  6. 66
    Tom on 22 Jul 2010 #

    #62 “the music made by their neolithic builders” – I’d guess Julian Cope had a stab at this at some point.

  7. 67
    lonepilgrim on 22 Jul 2010 #

    I’m all for creative misinterpretation of exotica – whether it be Henri Rousseau painting jungle scenes in his room in Paris, tribesmen worshipping the Duke of Edinburgh or Talking Heads trying to create a Joy Division song based on an idea of what the British quartet might sound like based on descriptions in the music press

  8. 68
    MikeMCSG on 22 Jul 2010 #

    I think Boney M’s “Belfast” is the ultimate winner here.

  9. 69
    Erithian on 22 Jul 2010 #

    I’ve been humming “Valparaiso” by Sting after reading the last few posts… don’t mock, it’s a bloody lovely song.

  10. 70
    Tom on 22 Jul 2010 #


    I’m reorganising the links on the side – in the long run I’m creating a “Similar Blogs To Popular” category to promote Marcello and Lena’s (and Sally O’Rourke’s and Jonathan Bogart’s projects) – for now those two linked ones are up on the “Links For Popular” section and if there’s anything else similar out there I’d love to know about it.

  11. 71
    punctum on 22 Jul 2010 #

    Wow, the Sally O’Rourke one looks fantastic!

    (P.S.: does anyone know whatever happened to Mike Daddino’s Billboard #1 project; did it just fizzle out?)

  12. 72
    Tom on 22 Jul 2010 #

    Yes, huge apologies to Sally – I thought I’d linked to it ages ago and was mortified to see it wasn’t on the sidebar.

    Sally’s one I think picks up where Mike’s ended, just after Rock Around The Clock – his old stuff is still up in an archive on his site I think?

  13. 73
    Steve Mannion on 22 Jul 2010 #

    #65 ‘Ecuador’ does aim for some sort of connection with the land tho via yer man Rodriguez. Whereas all you get from Oasis ‘Colombia’ is pretty much just ‘lol coke’ (still one of their better tracks tho).

  14. 74

    Eno is someone who belongs in this list, alone or in collaboration! To quote MYSELF (as quoted in Geeta Dayal’s excellent* little book on Another Green World), and to return us somewhere close to #2: “Fabulous geography is his business– territories explored, Fourthworld maps made: ‘On Some Faraway Beach’…., ‘Over Fire Island’, ‘By This River’, ‘Through Hollow Lands’, ‘Inland Sea’, ‘Lizard Point’, Warszawa’, ‘Neuköln’, ‘Moss Garden’, On Land, The Plateaux of Mirrors, Dream Theory in Malaya…”

    *ie it quotes me!

  15. 75
    lonepilgrim on 22 Jul 2010 #

    re 70 ‘if there’s anything else similar out there I’d love to know about it.’


  16. 76
    Paytes on 22 Jul 2010 #

    #65 Isn’t the Oasis song Columbia (as in District Of, British etc.) the (very) old name for America?


    … Geography geek

  17. 77
    Steve Mannion on 22 Jul 2010 #

    I stand corrected both on the spelling and the reference (Columbia Hotel apparently? And the song can/may be as much about their rise to fame or big discoveries as much as anything else). It’s been a day of errors.

  18. 78
    Alfred on 22 Jul 2010 #

    Mulling over this notion that music that refers to exotic (non-Western?) places ought to reflect the indigenous music of that place… so the only valid musical response to a landscape is that of the people who got there first? Or those who lived there first? Or those who live there now?

    Rory, that’s not what I said. To Enya, “Orinoco” and “Caribbean” signify on exactly the same sonic level. Like lonepilgrim wrote in post #67, I’m all for getting a place wrong, especially if it grabs me; but Enya doesn’t distinguish between the two “places” or states of mind conjured by Orinoco and Caribbean.

  19. 79
    swanstep on 22 Jul 2010 #

    Morricone’s soundtrack for The Mission was widely listened to and liked at about this time (it’s around on youtube now if you don’t know it). Dreamy/Breathy female vocals sort of knocking off This Mortal Coil’s Song for the Siren cover had been bubbling up out of David Lynch and his collaborators since Blue Velvet. Now D-50 all over that. Buy castle. Repeat.

  20. 80
    Alfred on 22 Jul 2010 #

    Oh boy do I know it — I used to cue songs from the soundtrack during chapel.

  21. 81
    lonepilgrim on 22 Jul 2010 #

    the lure of faraway places also featured in an earlier Number 1 – almost the earliest:


    I gotta say I prefer the Bob Dylan version

  22. 82
    swanstep on 23 Jul 2010 #

    Thinking a little more about Alfred’s criticism of Enya, it seems clear that he’s right but that, as it were, no one was ever fooled: you ride away with enya to quasi-celtic faerie-land, end of story.

    It’s interesting to think how people like Aphex Twin (who does have a touch of the pizzagogos in some of his more tuneful moments like xtal) kind of solve the problem: witter on if at all about strictly invented alien, indigene-free landscapes with the completely clear understanding that, as it were, listening to AT is really just entering a portal into Richard James’s head (after 30 minutes or so you’re deposited somewhere on the cornish coast).

  23. 83
    Erithian on 23 Jul 2010 #

    Well, here’s part of the lyric of “Valparaiso” (see #69) – more of a seafaring tune, with the placename probably chosen because it sounded good, but at least there’s extra local colour in the use of Cape Horn. It may be what Tom describes as an abstract fantasy of travel, but it did get me intrigued by the place (with no prospect of going there) and particularly interested when I read the chapters in “The Voyage of the Beagle” where Darwin spent a few weeks there.

    Chase the dog star over the sea
    Home where my true love is waiting for me
    Rope the south wind, canvas the stars
    Harness the moonlight so she can safely go
    Round the Cape Horn to Valparaiso …

    If I should die and water’s my grave
    She’ll never know if I’m damned or I’m saved
    See the ghost fly over the sea
    Under the moonlight, there she can safely go
    Round the Cape Horn to Valparaiso

    Off the beaten track as South American place names go (cf Rio…) Cf also;
    “Come fly with me, let’s float down to Peru / In llama land there’s a one man band and he’ll toot his flute for you…”

  24. 84
    vinylscot on 23 Jul 2010 #

    We had heard Enya before with Clannad, so to me this just sounded Irish, not exotic in any way, and thankfully not “world” music. While the place names featured may conjure up images of faraway lands, etc, is it not just as (or more) likely that they were chosen just because they were phonetically pleasing, similar to the BeeGees “Massachusetts” (according to a recent comment on that thread).

    This was pleasant but nothing more, and it’s unfortunate that Enya was adopted by the Abigail’s Party set of the time, as it rather devalued (in advance) anything she did from then on.

  25. 85

    incidentally the “shores of tripoli” phrase is lifted straight from the Hymn of the US Marine Corps, which begins (rather awesomely IMO, if somewhat imperialistically): “From the Halls of Montezuma, To the shores of Tripoli” <--- the latter being a reference to an anti-piracy campaign undertaken off the barbary coast, iirc

  26. 86
    swanstep on 23 Jul 2010 #

    @lord sukrat. Interesting, Def Leppard’s ‘Gods of War’ (on Hysteria) was widely played at the time, which features audio of Reagan and Thatcher defending their bombing of Tripoli in 1986 (allegedly in response to a bombing of a disco in berlin IIRC). 1988, best year for Libya in the charts ever?

  27. 87
    Lena on 23 Jul 2010 #

    Around this time my mom started to work on her side of the family’s genealogy, and it turns out she (and thus me) are directly related to some folks in Donegal, though not Enya’s family precisely. So I took this song/album as being almost shudderingly familiar (uncanny) as opposed to electronic exotica, though it is that too. (It was the time of a Celtic revival for me, as I saw U2, The Pogues, Hothouse Flowers, The Chieftains, Luka Bloom at this time and a bit after, and Irish Heartbeat was one of my albums of the year.) While reflecting her roots Enya stand as the soft end of the overwhelming sonic style of her unwitting (or maybe not) sisters in My Bloody Valentine, who are just as oceanic as her, just with different instruments and at a louder volume, obv. (Overwhelming too in her own way is Sinead O’Connor, of course.)

  28. 88
    Lena on 23 Jul 2010 #

    I also should note that this is the first number one that is so New Pop it actually mentions its producer; given the gentle solemnity of the album itself it’s almost like a commercial, or something…

  29. 89
    Rory on 23 Jul 2010 #

    @78 – oh, I see. I don’t really remember “Caribbean Blue”, so I tend to think of this track in isolation. A fair comment, although doesn’t the Orinoco flow into the Caribbean? So it’s not as if she used the same music for the Yangtze and the Mediterranean.

  30. 90
    Jimmy the Swede on 24 Jul 2010 #


    It must have been about 1994 and we used to, as a matter of course, routinely target flights from Amsterdam. It was our practice to arrest even for “personal use” and porny vids back then and clearly The Dam was a rich source of both. Nowadays, we simply wouldn’t bother with tiny bits of herb, simply take it, and obviously the advent of the internet has seen importation of porn in the shape of tapes and jazz-mags grind to a halt pretty much. This particular day, I had my eye on four scruffy looking guys entering the Green Channel (the Blue EU Exit wasn’t there then). I corralled them up and asked for their passports. All of them were Irish. I questioned them further and their story was that they were “musicians” and were on their way to Brighton to perform in a concert. At this point, I noticed a couple of colleagues looking across at me, which I thought was rather odd, and at this precise moment a smiley female passenger came bounding over to join us at the bench:
    “What have you bad boys been up to?” she said, gently chiding them.
    “Hello. Are you part of the group?” I asked her.
    She was.
    It was Clannad. Sans gear.

  31. 91

    I concur with Lena’s essence-of-new-pop description: and would happily tie up Enya’s “sail away into imagined territories” shtick (lyrical and sonic) with Byrne/Eno’s shimmering* ur-NuPop dreamscapes in Remain in Light and Bush of Ghosts, which neatly and image-rushingly avoid the messy Post-Colonial issues of actual sailing to actual other continents and actually meeting interesting new peoples and, well (as the old army recruitment gag concludes) killing them!

    *Tom noted in the pub a couple of days ago that a GOOD CRITICAL EXERCISE when discussing a lot of this music is to NOT USE the word “shimmering”. He is right but it is hard.

  32. 92
    Joe Kay on 26 Jul 2010 #

    #6, Buccaneer samples this on Fade Away.

  33. 93
    hectorthebat on 25 Feb 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 1023
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 15
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  34. 94
    Ben Gould on 20 Oct 2020 #

    Sadly this song will never be the same for me after that torture scene in David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake. (The standout scene from an otherwise unmemorable film.)

  35. 95
    Gareth Parker on 8 May 2021 #

    Another relaxing single and another 7/10 from me.

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