In 1990, Enigma came out of nowhere bearing gifts unlike anything eager listeners had heard before. MCMXC a.D. was the first album from this mysterious newcomer, and it made some impressively sized waves. It took over a decade for those waves to reach my quiet corner of the world, but when they did, I was in for quite a ride.
In my early teens, with no allowance and no job, my options for expanding my musical horizons were awfully limited. This was before Pandora, before you could find just about every album under the sun on Youtube, so the only way to stride out into that brave new world of music was through sharing, whether among friends — still drastically limiting what you had access to — or through the internet. And the latter is where I found Enigma.
The name was well-chosen. The music was as mysterious as the entity. I say entity because it wasn’t a band, but a project. Enigma was the brainchild of one man — Michael Cretu — and even that would have remained a mystery if he hadn’t been obliged to reveal the name behind the music because of some related legal troubles.
It’s no surprise that my imagination was captured from the start. This music was unlike anything I had heard or anything I had even dreamed was musically possible. Prior to this moment, my musical world had been the size of a coat closet; I had liked music because that’s what other people liked or because that was what I heard in the car on the way to school. Effectively, the extent of my experience with the art form was the country music my parents listened to or a sliver of modern rock and pop — so radical and cutting-edge — from my siblings’ car radios.
My understanding was that songs always involved a guitar and drums. They were generally written about love. They followed a verse/chorus pattern and sat comfortably between three and four minutes long. Oh, and you had to have a vocalist; the lyrics were the focus of the song!
Enigma turned everything I knew about music on its head. Not every song even had vocals, and when they did, they were often in foreign languages. Sometimes someone was just speaking over the music. Where were the lyrics about love and loss? There were no drums! No guitar! Some of these sounds couldn’t even be real instruments! What do you mean there’s no chorus? The song is how long? — eleven minutes?!
I’ll admit that the themes of sexuality and spirituality fluttered past just overhead. My young mind wasn’t in it for the deeper meaning; it was dumbfounded just by what it was hearing on the surface. I was certainly aware that there was a more adult level to this music, but I didn’t care. It was a new kind of music for me, a whole new realm for my ears to discover. It was a kind of music that could only exist now; it could only be created with a computer, pieced together from samples of instruments and vocals from all over the world. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around something so profoundly human — so passionate and alive — and yet wholly inhuman in its creation.
MCMXC a.D. sparked up a hunger. For the first time, I was reaching out and grasping at new experiences. I was done accepting only what others told me was worth hearing, seeing, experiencing. I wanted something new and untapped — something mine. Something that spoke directly to me. Enigma wasn’t the music to speak directly to me, but it was the first step toward finding it.
Looking back, Michael Cretu’s grand project seems to have lost some of its impact, especially in its more recent releases. Even early albums like MCMXC a.D., though, don’t hold the same punch for the adult me than they did for the teenager. Now, after years worth of exploration, that freshness and uniqueness has waned. It seems too on-the-nose somehow. A little self-absorbed, perhaps, or over-earnest. I still faithfully pick up each new Enigma album, but the truth is that I have more or less moved on. To me, Enigma feels like a relic of childhood — something to be cherished and dearly loved; something always to be held close, because it’s where I came from; but maybe something I have outgrown.
Still, I will always have Michael Cretu to thank for leading me into wild new worlds of sound. It was my gateway into that warm, safe, electronic place inhabited by acts like Carbon Based Lifeforms, The Knife, Infinity Shred. All the music that touches, comforts, inspires me; music that is so much a part of my soul that I couldn’t imagine life without it.
Thanks, Mr. Cretu. See you on Enigma 8.