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Spencer Radcliffe - "Looking In" | Album Review

by Catherine Vianale (@catherineveeee)

A member of Blithe Field, California Furniture, and Best Witches, Spencer Radcliffe is no stranger to songwriting. Radcliffe’s first record under his own name is a constantly buzzing machine even in its quietest moments; a jarring found sound or rogue synth melody is lurking in the shadows continuously, giving each song a depth that is uniquely Radcliffe’s. This record is at times reminiscent of early albums by The Microphones in their eerie and dense but still sweet sounding progressions, as well as their dual ability to turn uneasiness into complex beauty. Overall, this album lies somewhere between overwhelming and charmingly earnest, making it accessible, highly unpredictable, and patiently anxious.

Looking In opens with the pensive track “Mermaid” where a dark bass swell and spooky sound bits undercut the reverb-laden guitars, and Radcliffe rips our hearts open with the profound “I was born for nothing at all”. In the first song alone, Radcliffe exposes the most striking aspects of this album yet to come- quirky field recordings, subdued sonic noise, a contrast of happy-go-lucky and painfully sad lyrics, and guitar riffs that perhaps point back to Radcliffe’s time in emo bands. And with this multipart formula for songwriting, Radcliffe crafts some incredible moments. “Mia”, the second track and album single, has the most obvious melody and perhaps is the catchiest, though still stays true to Radcliffe’s distinctive style as evident by the sample of a dog barking at the beginning. No matter how comfortable this album gets, it’s swiftly reprimanded with undulating, haunting sound samples and twinkly, eccentric melodies. The next three songs, “Folded”, “Relief”, and “Parent” redirect the bubbly tone of “Mia” and take us further into the subtext behind Looking In, incorporating Alex G-esque guitar parts. “Oh my parents would like to know/ where did their little boy go” is another thoughtful moment in the track “Parent”, a bittersweet ballad with moany vocals and sparse instrumentation. This song is the first break from the denser, noisier songs on Looking In and shows Radcliffe giving pause to some of the more personal thoughts that are the bedrock of this album. The track “Relief” may be just what it sounds like- a relief from the more abrasive and unstructured songs that precede it, with the sound of a distant trashcan being hit with a baseball bat.

“Folded” is one of the more characteristically unstructured tracks with its slurred vocals, random percussion patterns and saxophone lines, and condensed vocal harmonies. This song goes down in my book as the most eclectic on Looking In. Well, I take that back. Halfway through the album, Radcliffe gives us the title track “Looking In”, which is a wonderful tease if you thought you were getting a lyric-heavy personal diatribe or moment of touching insight. “Looking In” is more like the soundtrack to a robot’s daydream than a confessional song, and reiterates one of my favorite aspects of this album. Every single moment of Looking In is constantly surprising, and there is no evident attempt to “rein in” the songs. They seem to almost move on their own and transform into whatever they want, forming an album that functions as one long unit of stream of consciousness.

 Moving forward, “Yankee” pulls at the heartstrings with more delicate, Pavement-sounding guitar melodies. But Radcliffe doesn’t let you hold on to that fleeting moment of sentimentality for long, “World’s Disguise” moves away from other songs on the album with its formless, synthy weirdness and slacker vocals. This song is made distinct by the constant threat that it will drift off completely at any moment, much like “Soft Spot” which could very well include a dollar store recorder being lazily tooted in the background. Spencer Radcliffe’s debut album is a massive creative effort and clearly the result of a sharp eye for extraordinary detail. Looking In is fickle, at times confusing, and intricate. If you’re feeling misguided or confused, this album may be your new best friend.