The Becoming is a musical experience that encourages the listener to actively ruminate along with the performer.
Ruminating leads to transmogrification–at least it does for Isla Craig. The Toronto based singer-songwriter’s new album, The Becoming, contemplates manifestations of consciousness while examining identity fluidity. Her third full-length album is immersive and pulls listeners into dream-like musical realms. Yet as it sonically expands, Craig’s experimentation and musicality lose contact, its lack of cohesion unsettling–but so is the process of self-discovery.
Each track is a soundscape featuring deeply layered instrumentation utilizing both electronic and analog music. “Out of a Dream,” for example, features a pronounced congas’ percussion that creates an auspicious interplay with Craig’s ethereal voice and the electrifying synths. It has three distinct musical sections: the first is Craig singing “show me a dream” over simple percussion. The tempo shifts as the percussion deepens and synths mixed with background vocals substantiate Craig’s melody. Stratified vocals move the track into a third section that adds guitar and Bram Gielen’s hypnotic bass. The song’s divisions sacrifice musical cohesion, but that’s precisely the point. As dreams are infrequently linear, its sequence replicates an indefinite chimera.
There is a distinct R&B vibe to The Becoming. The title track pairs soulful rhythm with Craig’s silky vocals. “Love Song” includes a pronounced reliance on a drum machine accentuated by Daniel Pencer’s woozy saxophone. The instrumentation captures the new-jack swing of the ‘90s R&B era but without hip-hop’s caliber. Hopefully this is Craig’s homage to the genre rather than an appropriation of black culture. Regardless, “Love Song” is an intimate piece though the instruments overpower Craig’s vocals which only reemerge when she strains to elongate a note. The vocal delivery is shaky and doesn’t capture Craig’s skill.
Craig collaborates with several prominent musicians here. Singer-songwriter Ivy Mairi, Daniela Gesundheit and the Weather Station’s Tamara Lindeman fortify Craig’s vocals on “Out of a Dream” and “Who Am I.” Their singing provides a choir’s fullness with the vulnerability of a stripped-down solo. Craig summons a quiet revolution against the patriarchy with the album’s finale, “Gregory.” Here the song primarily revolves around Jeremy Costello’s vocals with Craig contributing vibrant backup melodies. These musical partnerships demonstrate the impact of a community on identity and personify The Becoming’s dominant theme.
Throughout the album there is a prominent sense of self-discovery. The album’s title clearly evokes transformation while the child’s voice in “I’m Lost” reminds of the starting point for the journey to mindfulness. As the album develops, Craig moves between affirmation and skepticism of awareness. This is Craig’s aural reminder that discovery is discursive. “Faraway Blue” clearly captures this sentiment when Craig sings “You can prepare for the storm/ But it has a trajectory that you cannot change.” To reaffirm her point, she moves back to questioning herself in the following track “Who Am I” as she, Mairi, Gesundheit and Lindeman take turns singing “Who am I/ I want to know.” Percussion punctuates the vocals endowing the track with power and erasing skepticism. At this point, the song no longer questions individualism but becomes a declarative statement positioning Craig as a “force that doesn’t slow.”
Craig’s vocal and lyrical deliveries are unequivocally distinct, as each track is a unique musical entity. In “Messages” she mentions “a tapestry of work,” and this precisely represents the album, an amalgam of pieces threaded together akin to musical vignettes. For example, the title track features Nick Storring’s salient cello, noticeably and unfortunately absent for the remainder of the album. The percussion table in “Out of a Dream” hints at the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds while “I’m Lost” is a child’s recorded voice. “Who Am I” heavily leans on vocals and “Bird of Paradise” inexplicably melds new-wave with a twangy country feel. The spoken words that interrupt the melody on “Messages” is jarring, while each track’s new energy breaks the album’s flow. Clearly Craig meets the criteria for experimental music, but this is also The Becoming’s weakness. The lack of flow makes for a discombobulated listen.
That’s ultimately the point. The process of self-awareness is not comfortable; it’s messy and mercurial. For Craig to aurally personify these features demonstrates the album’s immersive qualities. Listeners are not entitled to narrative comfort since reality denies the same gratification. Getting pulled into Craig’s world turns The Becoming into a musical experience that encourages the listener to actively ruminate along with the performer.