When the soft, warbly strains of The Voice of Enigma first appear, there’s a part of you that has to fight back the urge to say “Good evening, The Voice of Enigma.” It’s easy to forget just how revolutionary MCMXC a.D. was, and just how special it is. Just a few seconds later, it mixes into the one single that matters, variously released as Sadeness, Sadeness (Part 1), and Sadness (Part 1).
Even now, years on, I’ve no idea what it means to be Sade, and I have no intention to check. This is, however you look at it, a beautiful piece of music, which as a concept was flawlessly translated into an album, and then a trilogy, and finally an entire career. The spoken vocals, the chants, the soft pad synths, the swing beats. The ingredients are clear and simple, the sound unmistakable, and the mood very pleasant indeed.
At the time, few would have known who Michael Cretu was – although he had seen some success across Europe, particularly with the Die chinesischer Mauer (in English, The Invisible Man) project, its response in the English-speaking world had been muted. But suddenly, his Enigma project cast him very much into the limelight upon its original release, incredibly now a quarter of a century ago.
There were four singles from MCMXC a.D., although you would have been unlikely to have noticed at the time, and Principles of Lust (Find Love) was the third. It’s another good song, but would have immediately drawn comparison with the infinitely better Sadeness. To view this album as a series of songs would be a mistake, and one for which Cretu can hardly be blamed.
The reprise of Sadeness which follows really just helps to reinforce this feeling, before mixing into the intriguing Callas Went Away, which is sweet and lovely, and you’ll get very confused if you try to figure out what it’s doing here. Mea Culpa, though, later released on its own as Mea Culpa (Part 2) is brilliant, and as a single was the darker and more dramatic counterpart to Sadeness (Part 1)‘s uplifting Gothic chanting.
The short and somewhat disturbing The Voice and The Snake follows, mixing into Knocking on Forbidden Doors, and then Way to Eternity. Seen alone, any one of these could be seen as a bit pointless, but in the context of the whole album, they somehow contribute to the genius of this release – full of deep and powerful atmosphere.
Way to Eternity in particular seems to be channelling the alien chimes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which may or may not be intentional. Cretu would, later in his career, most likely subconsciously weave the “that’s the look, that’s the look” refrain from The Look of Love into a song of his own, but I suspect here that the reference is intended, and is referring to the way that mankind’s dreams of journeying into the far-off future has changed little since Medieval days.
Bluntly, this is what this album does to your head. Reading that sentence back, it definitely doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it did seem to at the time, so you can place the blame firmly at Enigma‘s feet. Anyway, Hallelujah comes next, building on the themes from the opening track and paving the way to the dazzling final single and final track, The Rivers of Belief.
With our first taste of panpipes, which would become so prevalent on the second album three years later, it actually introduces a slightly different sound, but one which also fits here perfectly, and closes the album beautifully.
That would have been where the album ended, if you had been listening to it in 1990, unless you had waited and found the version with the hologram sleeve, which gave you an extra version of each of the singles. And which somehow, at some point further down the line, became the standard version of the album.
Viewed as a whole, either at forty or sixty minutes, MCMXC a.D. is a great album, and was a welcome introduction for Enigma to the world. Later albums may have covered different ground, for better or worse, but MCMXC a.D. was where it all began, and is very deserving of its place in history.
The entirely not limited “limited edition” version of MCMXC a.D. is still widely available.