Ian William Craig is a perennial presence in our year-end charts. His gorgeous, operatic voice, fed through layers of tape decay, is instantly recognizable. But until this point, he’s always sounded a bit lonely. All of this changes on The Heavy Steps of Dreaming, a partnership with singer/multi-instrumentalist Missy Donaldson. As Minor Pieces, the duo has created an altogether different album, purposely healing: as Craig says, “the kind of songs that I’d want to hear when I was sad, to help me feel better.” This album is an aural balm.
Craig has been using clearer vocals in recent years, stepping through the curtains and onto the stage. His lyrics are as welcoming as his timbre. But fans need not despair; there’s still processing here, beginning with the static, loop and distortion of “Rothko.” Craig’s voice lies safe in a bed of gauze. And now here’s Donaldson, a perfect harmonic companion, tapping the loops on the shoulder before stepping in. In “This House,” her voice is the first we hear, echoed speaker to speaker. There is wonder in this house, she sings, and we are reminded of other experimental singers from the shoegaze era, especially Hope Sandoval and the rotating cast of This Mortal Coil.
The album is impossible to pigeonhole. The backdrop shifts between ambient and drone, the vocals honor modern folk and the execution is experimental. There’s even a Christmas song (“Bravallagata”). For most of Christmas Day, the sun sets in Reykjavik at the same time as it rises. Remember this song: in a couple months, you’ll be yearning for subtle music. This one will nestle gently against Low’s “Long Way Round the Sea” like a puppy to its newly adopted child.
Just as the clouds seem ready to clear, the fog rolls in. “Grace” was written by Donaldson after saying goodbye to her ailing grandmother. The dynamic contrast is intense, a swirl of emotion that alternates between muddy and pristine as she deals with her feelings through song. Craig’s wordless voice enters like a salve before the entire track stalls in a synthesized rub. Craig launches the next track alone, as if giving Donaldson a minute to gather her strength. “You can break and you can bend,” the two sing together, building to the exquisite phrase, “as you sing yourself alive again.” The mutual comfort is akin to that shared by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush in “Don’t Give Up.” Together, the pair is stronger.
The ten-minute closer “Shipbreaking” serenades and shifts, becoming “this music of a Möbius strip.” Each singer inhabits their own space, leaves the door open and invites the other in. No distortion can drown their words. Now Craig feels better. Donaldson feels better. We feel better. We’ve taken heavy steps, but we’ve dreamed ourselves awake. (Richard Allen)