Spencer Radcliffe Has Me Looking In

Spencer Radcliffe shares my name and my home state, and is signed to the lovely Run For Cover Records. I was basically forced to listen to his music. I should’ve made up a cooler story, but that’s the truth. Fortunately, I stumbled into something worth stumbling into.

Have you noticed that music sounds better when you’re traveling? Because that’s an undebatable fact. Spencer Radcliffe’s debut album Looking In came into the world on a travel day, so it was my soundtrack. I was traveling from Cincinnati to Minneapolis alone, and therefore free to fall into the antisocial space I occupy so well. Looking In occupies it pretty well, too.

It’s rough around the edges. This album feels like an old book, the kind you want to keep sniffing because it smells musty and nostalgic.

I’m bad with genres, so I usually wrap my head around new music by triangulating it using other artists. Looking In has the eroding parade of sound I love about Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s like Jandek in its plodding hollowness, although it feels like you’re listening to a friend, rather than a mysterious man who may have murdered people. It’s also experimental, yet somehow cozy like Zammuto. I’m not really sure what I expected from Spencer Radcliffe, but it wasn’t this.

The moment Looking In went from something I’d play in the car to something I’d remember as a favorite of 2015 was track number three. “Folded” enters with a crackle and a shudder. Radcliffe sighs, “You cannot expect the world to unfold right in front of you / Certain things were made for a later time and a better point of view / It’s true.” He then gives way to horns, and suddenly I’m in love.

We’re operating on the same wavelength, because I can tell this album was born from isolation, anxiety, and spending an unhealthy amount of time hunched over a computer, tinkering. Between the intricacies of this album and the loneliness of it, it comes off sounding like some weirdo loner’s magnum opus. There’s a lot going on here, sonically.

I’m a big fan of fine tuning your work beyond what’s reasonable. I used to torture myself when I made music (once upon a time), and I still have great respect for my fellow tinkerers. This album samples a barking dog, and has little bits of sound crammed into every little nook and cranny, so it’s two thumbs up for me.

Despite the idiosyncrasies of it all, Radcliffe still finds a place for something catchy. “Mia” sounds like a lost Pavement song, reminding me that he’s signed to Run For Cover, and serving as a good entry point for anyone slow to warm up to the rest of the album.

With the endless fine tuning comes little restraint. Radcliffe indulges himself on just about every musical whim, seemingly determined to explore every corner of his psyche. It makes for a very personal experience. You get the sense that if you gave him another 44 minutes he’d eventually end up revealing his innermost secrets.

It’s as if Radcliffe popped the top on his brain, allowing everyone to take a peek inside at the crowded expanse. The album’s title obviously refers to Radcliffe’s own introspection, but the rest of us are looking in, too. As he examines himself, we’re all peeking over his shoulder, saying, “Yep, this is pretty nuts.”

He tells FADER why he did it: “I guess I made this album for the same reason I find myself making them again and again — to put something into the outside world that only existed within before, then sit back and admire the mess in front of me.”

I like his mess.