Despite the largely deserved “new age” scoffing that an awful lot of people seem to do when they hear the name “Enigma”, there was a time when there was something exciting about a new Enigma release. The first album, MCMXC A.D., wasn’t the most impressive album in the world, though “Sadeness” and “Mea Culpa” hinted at a combination of spirituality and sensuality that was awfully enticing. Much of that potential was dropped on The Cross of Changes in favor of twinkly noises and saccharine vocalisation, though again, “Return to Innocence” was a hidden treasure that hinted at untapped potential. Enigma 3: Le Roi est Mort, Vive le Roi! was where it all came together, where Michael Cretu’s project found an intensity and a beauty that simply hasn’t been matched since.
This is not for lack of trying; The Screen Behind the Mirror tried for a running theme, but faltered in having to borrow that theme from a too-recognizable source (Orff’s “O Fortuna”), while A Posteriori tried a different take on the stark simplicity of the first album. In hindsight, Seven Lives Many Faces, Cretu’s latest take on the Enigma name, is most like the excellent Enigma 3, in that the sole thing that holds these tracks together is the search for an emotional hook; emphatic vocal passages are softened by sedate instrumentals, chant returns (if in a reduced role), and Cretu appears to be trying to meld as many styles of music together as he possibly can.
Unlike Enigma 3, however, the effect of Seven Lives Many Faces is that of seasickness. It is impossible to relegate to the background, but falls apart when subjected to close examination. It’s the hollow feeling of a Rubik’s Cube solved by sticker manipulation, recognizable as a work of art but not indicative of any sense of cohesion or mood.
Once the obligatory opener passes, we’re led into “Seven Lives”, which tries desperately to combine synthesized violin stabs with a beatboxed beat and some vocals by Andru Donalds, who sounds like a cross between Peter Gabriel and Barry Gibb. Not only does the combo just not work, but Cretu actually brings the entire thing to a full stop at the halfway point of the song before awkwardly introducing a key change. The thing is almost bizarre in its disjointedness, a jarring development for an artist who has always been able to form coherent thoughts via his music.
Seven Lives Many Faces goes on to careen wildly between quiet, relaxing, rich pieces of the type Enigma fans have come to know and harder-edged pieces that sound strangely foreign. On one hand we have the unfortunately titled “Touchness”, a quiet piece that subtly incorporates orchestral choirs and whispered female vocals. On the other hand, there is “Distorted Love”, on which the beat is more intense, sampled voices say things like “I love your body” and “You need love”, and Donalds shows up for more vocals, which say awkward things like “Touch me, I’ll be your daddy / Smell me, I’ll be your mommy”. Part of Enigma’s appeal is in its willingness to combine the sexual with the spiritual, but this song is enough to make its listener uncomfortable.
On it goes. Crétu does throw a few bones to longtime fans, like “Déjà Vu”, which samples older Enigma tracks and “La Puerta del Cielo”, which features the beautiful Catalan vocals of Ibiza’s Margarita Roig, a new collaborator who actually sounds like the one indispensable part of the entire album. Both of her tracks (the other called “Between Generations”) are actually standouts here, and may well be reason enough to own the album.
Otherwise, Seven Lives Many Faces is a scattershot piece of music that misses far more often than it hits. The moments of beauty are too often covered up by an incompatible idea or a painful vocal line, resulting in an album that’s difficult to listen to for all of the wrong reasons. Michael Cretu wants to experiment with what the Enigma name can represent, and that’s fine; perhaps we just need to accept that some of those experiments aren’t going to pay off.