Ian William Craig’s new EP Slow Vessels is not quite new. Each of its six songs first appeared on the 2016 album Centres in different forms. “Contain” and “A Single Hope” appear here in their third iterations. Yet the songs on Slow Vessels are in many ways unfamiliar if not altogether unrecognizable. The hallmarks of Craig’s sound are all accounted for – the nigh on celestial voice, the predilection for distortion and opacity, the gloom – while at the same time this brief collection adds something noteworthy to his catalog.
The EP version of “Contain,” for instance, splits the difference between its previous incarnations “Contain (Astoria Version)” and “Contain (Cedar Version),” both on Centres. The latter is a rarity in Craig’s catalog – simply a song, completely unadorned – whereas the former is more typically awash in effects and noise that appropriately evokes the “haunted weather” of its lyrics. An extended instrumental coda that culminates in swelling church-organ-like synths and a blunted, blissful din makes “Astoria” more than twice as long as its distilled counterpart. On Slow Vessels the piano/vocal setting is principally acoustic, but that source material is fed through fluctuating amounts of reverb, echo and distortion that impart a stately reverence to the sound of the piano and a ghostly quality to the voice that’s there one moment and gone the next.
Unlike Craig’s previous albums, which meld his voice with largely electronic and synthesized sounds, he follows this basic template of a distorted acoustic source that is re-purposed and reconfigured for each track. On balance, the result is a small universe of living textures, similar enough to one another to feel all of a piece but diverse enough to avoid becoming boring.
But that’s just the set dressing. The main actors are Craig’s voice and the words he intones so poignantly. His voice is striking, lithe and melismatic but paradoxical, projecting both gentleness and strength. Craig has a classically trained voice that is thankfully not overly operatic, sounding much closer to Jeff Buckley than Andrea Bocceli. Fortunately, he makes judicious use of the kind of vibrato that an opera singer would use more reflexively.
Craig’s lyrics are evocative but obscure: consider “We’ll be the dumbwaiter spanning the distance from you to the depths” from “Arrive, Arrive.” Or: “A dream between the softness and the wires / Stretching the map until it turns into land” from “Purpose (Is No Country).” On Centres, this song took the form of a foggy, nebulous a cappella, its overdubbed harmonies residing somewhere in a no man’s land between barbershop quartet and Hildegard von Bingen (or, at glancing moments, Carlo Gesualdo). On Slow Vessels it appears transfigured and nearly folksy, with little more than Craig’s untroubled solo voice and fingerpicked acoustic guitar. One was hazy and obscure, the other is arresting primarily because of its simplicity. More notably, the movement in this version sets it like an island of contented resignation within a vast ocean of devoted but melancholy longing and, occasionally, of dour ambiguity.
The weight of these emotions can make listening to Slow Vessels a challenge, not because the music is lacking but because it’s so ponderously slow and emotionally severe. Still, there is a generosity in this severity that may reward listeners willing to spend time in the faintly hallowed space that it creates.