Jul 10

ENYA – “Orinoco Flow”

FT + Popular95 comments • 7,803 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. 1
    punctum on 21 Jul 2010 #

    The obverse of wanting to be a supreme individual, as expressed in “One Moment In Time,” is to be no one at all, or possibly everyone. Enya has routinely cautioned against labelling her music as New Age, and not unreasonably; the tissues of fluffy pabulum floating down from the George Winstons and Marden Hills of that world were the equivalent of a flotation tank or bubble bath in which yuppies could pretend to meditate for twenty minutes before striding back out onto the trading floor and shitting upon everyone else, mostly each other, a simulacrum of escape.

    The case of Enya is more complicated, perhaps even more so than Kate Bush; having graduated from the junior ranks of Clannad via documentary soundtrack work, she now finds herself in the position of being the most self-enclosed artist in all of popular music; rarely venturing from her Dublin castle, she sings and plays every note on her periodic releases, all of which sell in sufficient quantities to enable her to carry on regardless. She purposely distances herself from practically everything else going on. She appears wholly (or holy?) self-contained.

    Yet her career has been micromanaged by ex-Clannad manager Nicky Ryan and his wife Roma, who writes all of Enya’s lyrics; thus her voice is not, strictly speaking, her own, but her art for all desired purposes is utterly of and from her. In “Orinoco Flow” she sings of fantasies of travelling, mixing the actual (Bali, Tripoli, Tiree) with the mythical (Avalon, Babylon, the “island of the Moon”) from the perspective of someone dreaming while gazing out of her bedroom window – but she still finds space to insert in-jokes about her record company boss (“With Rob Dickins at the wheel”) and her producer (“We can sigh, say goodbye, Ross and his dependencies”).

    So is the art of Enya all an elaborate conceptual prank? The music of “Orinoco Flow” is bustling, mobile, purposeful and fairly regal, like the waves on which she dreams of sailing away…but from what, or whom? The “let me sail…/let me reach, let me beach” refrains suggest frustration to the point of agony, a polite scream for liberation from a crappy non-life. But there is something about the drive (the journey?) of the multiple synthesisers and keyboards, and the piano strewn with red roses when she performed the song on TOTP – maybe even that little touch of OMD harmonies in the bridge – which arouses the siren song of 1967, a sideways return of psychedelia, a hazy, not-quite-all-there, dreamlike drift.

    No doubt its success, and that of its parent album Watermark, could be superficially viewed as the parallel of Dido’s success in more recent times; a quickly soothing but non-lasting balm for thrusting Thatcherkids. But I think there is more to Enya than this; consider the fact that she has invoked the Kyrie Eleison in her songs more than once, think of the parallel developing worlds of women who were glad not to have to fit into a certain mould of 1988 – Jane Siberry’s The Walking, Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Miss America, the triumphant return of the Cocteau Twins with Blue Bell Knoll, not to mention Bilinda Butcher passim – and it is not beyond the realms of probability that this is where someone like Judee Sill might have ended up had she been stronger and lived to tell some more tales; a devotion, a vision which wasn’t that rare in the best of 1988’s music (Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden also comes to immediate mind) but in the context of the shameless grubbiness of the number ones which bookended “Orinoco Flow,” the record’s triumph in itself appears something of a miracle. Less a bubble bath, more a serene waterfall with the potential to transport its travellers to somewhere…better? Think, finally, of Saint Etienne’s “How We Used To Live” and its threefold explorations of what it means to “sail away,” and also the moment in Thoreau’s “Week On The Concord River” where he begins to rhapsodise to the point of abstraction when his home village vanishes from view, though always in the knowledge that he can return. Somewhere better…within ourselves? As for Enya, she is the nearest equivalent I can think of to a pop Jane Austen – she works confidently within her own two square inches of ivory, and fills them up with purpose and quiet wonder.

  2. 2
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Jul 2010 #


    “By the last decade of the century it seemed that everything possible in electronic rock had been achieved. Then along came Enya with a new sound.”

    This is from Mark Prendergast’s The Ambient Century, which I thoroughly recommend if you are a fan of lapidary bathos.

  3. 3
    CarsmileSteve on 21 Jul 2010 #


  4. 4
    Tom on 21 Jul 2010 #

    #3 Never mind the Orinoco Flow, it’s the Tobermory Beats that make this one.

    #1 Love the take on Enya, but oddly I think you’re being a bit unfair on new age culture here – it’s always seemed to me it’s not a yuppie fad but something mostly taken up by people hustled out of the rat race: an escape route for the bruised and left behind.

  5. 5
    Steve Mannion on 21 Jul 2010 #

    It’s alright but it’s not ‘Tribal Base’

  6. 6
    Tom on 21 Jul 2010 #

    #5 AARGH! God almighty Steve, you could warn us before exposing us to Nicky Campbell with no warning.

    Has there not been a hip-hop or R’n’B song recently which samples “Orinoco Flow” very prominently?

  7. 7
    thefatgit on 21 Jul 2010 #

    I like how this one builds subtly. By the end of the song, it’s muted pandemonium, like 1000 librarians going “ssshhhhh”.

    I hear Enya and I think of Clannad and their very excellent “Theme From Harry’s Game”.

  8. 8
    Tom on 21 Jul 2010 #

    The score is a shiny 6, now up on the post – I’d forgotten to tick the box telling the site it’s a Popular post.

  9. 9
    MikeMCSG on 21 Jul 2010 #

    I always think of this as being the first number one of the 90s. Taken together with other developments at the time, the temporary success of All About Eve, Dukakis recovering some ground for the Democrats, the promotion of two young tyros on Labour’s front bench and Thatcher’s enviromental speech (no credit to her but at least her speechwriters recognised a shift in mood) it suggested that at last some softer, more human values were taking hold.

    I share Punctum’s scepticism about New Age as an alternative religion for yuppies – none of that inconvenient “eye of a needle” stuff in the crystals – and its certainly arguable that Enya is an effete princess shielded from the outside world first by her extended family and then her wealth but this was undeniably refreshing.

    I think “Carribbean Blue” is a better song though.

  10. 10
    lex on 21 Jul 2010 #

    This is the first No 1 I remember from the time! I have a very specific memory of doing PE to it in primary school. I think we might have been asked to pretend to be flowers growing out of the floor.

    I think Enya is terrific, she is a mad recluse who lives in a CASTLE and like a Celtic Sade makes records every decade or so that essentially sound identical. Also the whole “I am going to make music entirely made out of layered vocals” is the kind of thing that would gain an artist immense cult/critical plaudits if couched in the right context (ie not Enya’s) – this is basically My Bloody Valentine with vocals instead of guitars.

    That said I neither own nor particularly wish to own any Enya records, I just relistened to “Orinoco Flow” for the first time in years and enjoyed it but I suspect it’ll do me for another decade.

    #6 – not “Orinoco Flow” and indeed not that recently, but any more discussion is bunnied I believe. Unless there HAS been one that samples “Orinoco Flow” cuz let’s face it there should be.

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    Kat but logged out innit on 21 Jul 2010 #

    #6 There’s a remix of Yo Majesty’s ‘Club Action’ which is actually one of the best things in the world EVER.

  12. 12
    Kat but logged out innit on 21 Jul 2010 #

    I absolutely adored this at the time btw. I will have to blog the video separately!

  13. 13
    lex on 21 Jul 2010 #

    Though a swift Google has revealed this unexpected Nicki Minaj quote:

    Q: Is it true that you’re a big Enya fan?

    A: Who doesn’t love Enya? Whenever I’m in a trying time, she is the calm in the middle of the storm. If I put her on, I’ll be in this crazy peaceful state. I love her style. And her harmonies are freaking genius.

  14. 14
    Alan Connor on 21 Jul 2010 #

    Something I have to put out of my mind is watching a late-night ’00s ITV screening of the World Music Awards and my flatmate and me realising this was not about “world music” but in fact territories, third quarters and emerging markets. ISTR many of the artists who would soon be conveyor-belting Country and Bollywood versions of their product giving major props to Enya for her staggering amount of unit-shiftage. I don’t think she was in person in Monaco or wherever to respond to these pecuniary accolades and I kinda hope she wasn’t.

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    punctum on 21 Jul 2010 #

    #4: People hustled out of the rat race tend not to have time for culture, new age or otherwise (if you can call new age a culture rather than a marketing tool); they’re too busy worrying about how to pay the bills, feed their family etc. The ones who opt out – rather than being hustled out – tend to be those who can afford to do so.

  16. 16
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Jul 2010 #

    By the end of the song, it’s muted pandemonium, like 1000 librarians going “ssshhhhh”.

    ^^^ACTUAL greatest sentence in music-writing history!

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    MikeMCSG on 21 Jul 2010 #

    # 15 I’m with you there Mr P, such people are more likely to be picked up by the JWs or God help them, the likes of Jim Jones and David Koresh that offer some community and/or expectation of a dramatic change than the inward-looking self-help therapies of New Age.

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    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Jul 2010 #

    “Hippy culture” — as distinct from “New Age” culture, which overlaps but is not the same — functions as a counter-ratrace project at more than one level, from punctum’s first target (actual stock-market monsters taking a breather) through his slightly revised target at @15 (well-off people opting out of same, because they can’t hack it or because they actually hate it) down through all kinds of odd bohemian and antinomian drop-out and refusenik layers…60s working-class alternopop-cultural escapism certainly hadn’t been stamped out at this stage, and crusty festivals also had crystals tents and straitened yoga options

    (Not to mention the Brewing Rave Explosion, which was certainly NOT primarily City-fuelled…)

    (I’m rereading E.P.Thompson’s “Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law”, which very much makes a point of distinguishing between the Quietist Upper-Layer Hermetic Tradition, as indulged by Polite Society, and the more engaged, eccentric anti-rational anti-academic resistance layers that Blake came from… 1988 certainly saw a massive joyous flare-up of the latter.)

  19. 19
    wichita lineman on 21 Jul 2010 #

    Unfortunate first hand experience of a near father-in-law who loved Enya and some New Age thing called Deep Breakfast in his downtime, but was more than happy to pay workers in his Chinese factories peanuts: “what would they do with the extra pay? They’d go mad!”

  20. 20
    Kat but logged out innit on 21 Jul 2010 #

    Also “Book Of Days” from 1992 is totes underrated – not quite as forging as OF but very good as soundtrack for horses running across prairies to rescue Tom Cruise from down a well.

  21. 21
    Billy Smart on 21 Jul 2010 #

    Well, this is better than I remembered it being. It has a sense of playfulness that’s rather appealing. Odd though, that I have no desire to investigate the rest of the Enya canon, however attractive the idea of her being a castle-dwelling recluse is. I guess that there are just some artists who just function best in popular memory as one-hit wonders – even if they technically weren’t.

    Also, wasn’t this used in an advert, if not at the time then fairly soon after? Aqua Libra would be the perfect period fit of song and product…

  22. 22
    Kat but logged out innit on 21 Jul 2010 #

    Haha amazing Youtube comment on the video to Book Of Days:

    “This music inspires us to live life to the fullest I am not really into Death Metal or Gangsta Rap all they do is curse, say the Lords Name in Vain and Brag about being PUNKS Enya and the stuff from the 80’s is worth watching”

  23. 23
    Billy Smart on 21 Jul 2010 #

    Number 2 Watch: Three weeks of Kylie’s rather lovely ‘Je Ne Sais Pas Porquois’ – the third in a trilogy of consecutive Minogue runners-up. An endearingly gauche first attempt at grown-up sophistication.

  24. 24
    Chris Gilmour on 21 Jul 2010 #

    Oh, we’re well into a dreary run of MOR chart toppers now, at complete odds with some wonderfully exciting records in the lower reaches of the chart like ‘Big Fun’ and ‘Can You Party’. These, along with ‘Introspective’ and Pete Hammonds PWL mixes of Euro hits, were never off the 70’s hi-fi centre that I’d commandeered from the front room and moved to my bedroom. I was finding anything dance music related incredibly exciting, and had discovered Record Mirror which opened up a whole new world for me, so obviously poor old Enya never got a look in.
    I remember her playing on a piano covered in roses for Xmas TOTP; alas, on my recording, all you see is a long shot of her at the end as I cut her out, along with Fairground Attraction and one other forthcoming entry. Oh, well, it’s fine if you like that sort of thing. Three.

  25. 25
    Billy Smart on 21 Jul 2010 #

    TOTPWatch: Enya performed Orinoco Flow On the Top Of The Pops broadcast on October 20 1988. Also in the studio that week was Kylie Minogue. Steve Wright & Caron Keating were the hosts.

  26. 26
    Erithian on 21 Jul 2010 #

    A lovely, refreshing, calming sound to have at the top of the charts – sumptuous overlaid vocals, and the recitation of faraway places with strange sounding names is beautifully evocative while meaning virtually nothing. But the question to be asked is – is this the only number one to namecheck a place (i.e. Tiree) that features in the shipping forecast? Until Blur release “This Is A Low” as a single, perhaps.

    Travel fact: at the time this reached number one, Michael Palin was travelling through India while filming “Around the World in Eighty Days”.

  27. 27
    Kat but logged out innit on 21 Jul 2010 #

    #26 I’m sure Willy Fogg had already got to Yokohama by then.

  28. 28
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Jul 2010 #

    “By the first decade of the century it seemed that everything possible in video reviewing had been achieved. Then along came Kat with a new new entry

  29. 29
    thefatgit on 21 Jul 2010 #

    Of course, at this point in 1988, “Straight Outta Compton” was competing with “Introspective” for my affections. My Walkman had never been so busy.

  30. 30
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Jul 2010 #

    The best bit in the vid is when the little stockhausen-loving frog SETS SAIL FOR THE SUN at c.0.40

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