MCMXC a.D.: A Coming of Age Story

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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.

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6 thoughts on “MCMXC a.D.: A Coming of Age Story

  1. YES YES YES YES YES!!!

    Man. Everyone has a soundtrack to their childhood. The parents choices. Your parents chose country. Mine liked Bob Marley, Stereophonics, Paul Weller, John Martyn and my mumma, a lover of Chillout compilations and lounge music, was an owner of MCMXC a.D.

    All the albums I was put through as a child have influenced my musical tastes but none on a grander scale than sweet old mumma’s chillout collection and Enigma? Well that was one of the most god damn memorable. Nostalgia yes. But everything else that you just said. It rocked my little childlike mind. I must have been subject to the thing from.. god knows when, I was born in 92 so possibly from birth. I had a whole cartoon/real life story that went with the the thing. It had battles, dinosaurs, caves, singing monk mice, mermaids, a wierd poisonous fog, horses, a small singing asian girl in a market (Callas Went Away), an eagle, a French Rock T-rex complete with velociraptor backing vocalists… EVERYTHING! I’d replay the story in my head each time the album came on. Improving, adding new bits. I love it. I’d request it.

    Then time rolled by, I grew up, my mum got new albums and Enigma was lost to the cupboard.

    About five/six years ago I got a big old iPod. My starting point (due to lacking much of a collection myself) was to search through all my mums old albums. And there it was. Nostalgia. Listening again with matured ears was one hell of an experience. The story came flooding back. But my grown knowledge of production and music in general allowed me to appreciate more than just the imagery conjured up by the sounds. It’s a piece of art in my eyes. Like you say, an old relic. I always play it to people and it just sort of confuses them. Haven’t seen your blog before but I very much appreciated this post. Nice to finally hear of someone else cherrishing this album.

    I’ma check the rest of your shit now man. I expect good things if this was the starting point for your musical exploration. I feel like we maybe share similar tastes… so here’s a plug but check out my blog if you’ve got time. Some tracks on there that might be up your street.

    Safe

    x

    • I wonder how different my life would have been if I’d had Enigma right from the start. Part of my envies you (and that whole imagined story), but the other part rather likes that it grew up so sheltered and had the opportunity to break out and forge its own way. It’s funny how Enigma came along for me right at the time I was entering my teens and naturally becoming rebellious.

      I’m curious — have you listened to the other albums now that you’ve gone back and rediscovered Enigma? Truth be told, I always liked The Screen Behind the Mirror a skosh more than MCMXC a.D. I adore the much more recent A Posteriori too, though I feel weird comparing it to the rest of the catalogue because it hardly sounds like an Enigma album at all.

  2. Na man, re-discovered it a fair few years back when I wasn’t as into music as I am now. Well, I would never have considered researching new music online anyway. Since then It’s just become another segment of my collection. I don’t think I want to listen to any more Enigma. Something about that one significant album is sort of great enough on it’s own. I don’t need to hear more if you know what I mean. Like I’m scared that I wont like the other projects and that hearing them might put a new spin on the one that I know and alter it in a way that I don’t want it altered… but now having actually considered that there is more Enigma out there and that you yourself prefer some of the the other pieces… link me up?

    • I know that exact feeling. I had a similar aversion to any Final Fantasy games after VI. I was afraid of the switch from Nintendo to Sony, the switch from sprites to 3D, and afraid they just wouldn’t live up to the games that I was so familiar with.

      Regarding Enigma, since I came late, I sort of got the first four albums all in one dose. Even now I still get songs from Enigma 3 and Enigma 4 mixed up. Looking back at them more critically, I definitely feel there’s a substantial shift from first album to everything that followed, so you’d probably hear an even wider divide. It’s up to you whether you want to disturb your memories of Enigma by checking out the newer albums.

      If you do want to, though, the entire Enigma catalogue is available on Amazon. I’m sure you could find them on Youtube as well if you wanted a trial run.

      I’d start with The Cross of Changes and go from there.

      • Well when I’ve got some cash I’m definitely going to give it all a good listen. I’m very interested to see the progression after getting some of your insight.

        Safe hook up dude.

        P.S. sorry for poor spelling and grammar on my part, was never too hot on either, I just write how I speak.

        Safe

  3. re MCMXC a.D.
    Bought the cd in 1990 and just recently rediscovered it in a box of books put away since a house move many years ago !! It’s wonderful to experience it again. I want to know who plays the drums on MCMXC a.D. or is it a machine? Enigma is well named as I cannot find much info at all.
    Michael is such a clever musician, such imagination … Have now bought Seven Lives Many Faces and Le Roi est Morte, Vive le Roi which are every bit as haunting though a little different. I certainly recommend them. I shall probably end up with everything Enigma has produced !!

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