Spencer Radcliffe has been putting out music for a while — first as Blithe Field, then under his own name — and you can chart his progression since 2008 in a satisfying arc. His early work takes the form of spacey electroacoustic experimentation, which snaps into sharper focus after changing his name and releasing Sinking Down, his first EP that feels like a complete thought. Over the past two years, the Chicago-via-Ohio songwriter has only been getting better as he finds the common ground between his freeform flights of fancy and more traditional song structure. Those two sensibilities congealed on last year’s Brown Horse — a split with the like-minded R.L. Kelly released through Orchid Tapes — and all of his development comes to a head on Looking In, his upcoming debut full-length, out via Run For Cover in the fall.
The new record is a progression that feels as natural as the one’s contained in his songs. Radcliffe is the type of musician who makes everything seem instinctual. You can see the bare bones underneath each of the tracks, which all feel like they’re the result of messing around, hitting record, and playing things out until it feels right. Because of this, he tends to operate in a kind of circular rhythm — he takes a melody and teases it out to the farthest possible conclusion. Take “Tattoo,” which meanders along with an understated sway, or Keeper’s “Marlena” that begins with a sputter of muted taps cut through by a computerized vocal sample that reassures “I’ll be OK” in detached bursts.
His music is appropriately restrained, pulling back before morphing into anything too constructed or deliberate. These are heady, textural songs for days when you feel like you need to be locked inside of yourself. On the few occasions that he really lets himself loose, things get dark real quick: “Lemme Live” is the best example of this, a scream into a void that feels as cathartic as it does desperate. And “My Song,” a spoken word track from Brown Horse, shows off a conversational, stream-of-consciousness style that gives a palpable personality to all of his anxieties.
But, mostly, Radcliffe operates in a drift, more comfortable with floating around in his own head. He feels in this world but not of it, lost and looking for an answer without really knowing the question. Tape delay and overdubs stand in for hesitation and second-guessing; sometimes, a single chord can travel the entire spectrum of human emotion. On one of the tracks from his new album, he muses: “I guess somehow I lost track of the direction back to the world from my mind.” Radcliffe often sounds like he’s taking the path least traveled, but it doesn’t feel like a misstep, just a different way of doing things.
The album artwork for Looking In depicts a fish staring at a cat who is trapped in their former prison. It’s an apt visualization for the way Radcliffe’s songs feel, simultaneously all-knowing and knowing nothing at all. On “Mia,” the first song he’s sharing from the upcoming record, he harbors a secret like a curse. There’s a divide between Radcliffe and the rest of the world, but he bridges the gap with his music, and makes us feel like we’re on his side too. Listen below.