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Review: Spencer Radcliffe Marches to the Beat of His Own Drum Machine on ‘Looking In’

7
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: October 2, 2015
Label: Run For Cover

Bandcamp’s dregs are lined with the labors of uncountable singer/songwriters who possess a stack of Death Cab records and a dream. Spencer Radcliffe has been one of those, over time issuing formless, yawning compositions that tell tales of addiction and existential anxiety. But he’s also simultaneously tinkered away on weirder enterprises. He’s made math rock as Best Witches, glinting ambient pieces as Blithe Field, and openhearted emo as California Furniture, but his latest effort unites those disparate impulses for a record that’s as baffling as it is endearing. Isolation breeds idiosyncrasy, so it’s no wonder that one of these bedroom-reared weirdos would finally sample barking dogs and bleat on a saxophone while singing about infinity.

Looking In starts with the hushed introspection that its title would suggest, using sloping slowcore structures as the dreamy margins on “Mermaid.” It’s familiar, comforting, the sort of inner-ear whisper that a whole scene of like-minded introverts are mining, but Radcliffe immediately changes its subtle creep into something more surreal, with asynchronous issuances of soupy strings and saxophone detritus. There was never a truly out-there Low record, so Radcliffe took it upon himself to answer the question of what happens when you get a little anxiety in your despair. Trash takes over the mix, synth noise fills your headphones.
But he knows far better than to let those intentionally sour notes rule the record. In between experimental and existential impulses, Radcliffe also has the occasion to issue some pretty perfect pop songs. Out of the burbling opener comes “Mia,” whose barking-dog percussion and spry guitar exercises recall the bare emoting of early Built to Spill and the playfully addled art-rock of his fellow home-recorder Alex G. “Yankee” too stands above the warped pieces he was making before, emphasizing lazy guitar-work and lyrical directness over the hazy atmosphere he’s used to. This is a guy who once contributed a haphazard recording to a jokey project called 420 Love Songs  (a long-since abandoned attempt to outdo the Magnetic Fields), but you’d never know it from the sleek craftsmanship here. Looking In feels bigger than it has any right to be, a solo record that was obviously the work of intense compositional effort, but retains an endearing slackness.
Still, there are moments where the record threatens to drift off into the ether, a peril perhaps of all that time alone. The title track in particular is an especially mealy collage of warped delay effects and pinging strings that threaten to derail Radcliffe’s casual momentum — as if the amorphous putty of his Blithe Field material couldn’t quite be shaped into something symmetrical. It’s a curious misstep, but one that’s forgivable given how effortlessly affecting the record’s best moments are. Radcliffe used to feel like just one of the crowd of burgeoning DIY songwriters, but the willingness to go ugly separates him from the rest of the pack. He hasn’t quite figured out the exact balance of bitter and sweet, but Looking In feels even truer to life as a result.