Spencer Radcliffe - Looking In

Adam Ward reflects on brain pain and the Chicago-based songwriter’s newest album.

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Last week, staying late at a work function, I felt the early symptoms of a migraine coming on. There are very few things on Earth that can give you anxiety like realizing you’re about to be in severe pain for hours. I left early, buried my aching brain under a blanket, and slept it off. The next morning I retained a dull ache, and every time I’d whip my head a little too fast a sharp pain like an electrical shock would sting the top of my skull. I’ve written about my weird brain things before, but migraines haven’t been a significant part of my life in years. At least not to the extent that they were when I was a preteen, where a particularly bad one could knock me out of school for a couple days.

That dull ache is sort of like a keynote sound, something inescapable that weaves itself seamlessly into your life. I found myself listening to music in bed at the lowest possible volume my computer would allow, Spencer Radcliffe‘s Looking In barely escaping the tiny speakers like the whisper of a small animal. I experienced those two simultaneously; the dull ache and the quiet noise, and if there’s any graceful way to compare an album to a migraine, that has to be it. They were both relieving in their own way.

On last year’s Brown Horse, Spencer Radcliffe’s split album with R.L. Kelly, he opens the album with one of his finest songs “Green Things.” Whispering in a falsetto above barely-plucked guitar he sings “Oh my god I’ve really done it this time / I loved you so much that it was a crime.” Eventually the song erupts, shakers, hollow recorders and layered guitar painting the song in a myriad of colors. Moments like these, whether as his given name or his previous work as Blithe Field, are what make his songs so special. The tonal quality often gives a sense of the songs being recorded in a dusty back room of an old home, toy keyboards and ramshackle acoustic instruments abound.

Looking In doesn’t stray too far from that formula; album opener “Mermaid” billows with strings and horns before a purring noise introduces itself as the song’s primary rhythm instrument. A softly-stuck bell dollops the end of each line like a sunny punctuation mark in stark contrast to Radcliffe lamenting “I was born for nothing at all.”

Where Radcliffe’s previous albums like Brown Horse or his 2013 EP’s Wet Pink Construction Paper Mask and Sinking Down were for the most part sunny and home-recorded, Looking In feels marginally more produced and significantly more antagonistic. For instance, the album’s title track features what sounds like a battery-powered toy keyboard ran through a destroyed tape player over instruments being tuned. A lot of Radcliffe’s material can be challenging without context. That’s not to say it isn’t beautiful, very few are making music this unique (for others, see Katie Dey, Julian Lynch, or Ricky Eat Acid).

Where Radcliffe excels in his gutting lyrics. On the meandering “Parents” he takes the role of an aching parents wailing “Oh where did my little boy go?” at the pace of someone dragging their feet down the sidewalk. “Mia” reads like a teasing child: “A little secret / don’t tell anyone / or else I’ll never call you my friend.” And “Folded” plays like instruments cascading down a staircase, each syllable met with a cymbal crash and kick before his lyrics, played through something surely encased in colorful plastic, clips and stretches his words at will.

Looking In is maybe the quintessential 2015 Sunday morning album, a sleepy, slow-tempo play with navel-gazing lyrics and warm textures. There are abrasive moments that, despite being challenging, play counterpoint to the softer moments. When you hit play on “Relief,” the soft-strummed guitar feels exactly like that. Next time you’re nursing a headache or a hangover, put it on and get cozy.

Looking In is out now via Run for Cover Records.