Spencer Radcliffe and Everyone Else Chuckle at the Void on Their New Album
'Hot Spring,' the pastoral and gorgeous new LP from the Chicago songwriter and his band, explores the absurdity of mundane life.
Photo by Dakota Sillyman
Spencer Radcliffe uses his open indie rock songs as a way of searching. You can hear it on songs like "Clocktower," on which he hopes "for some time alone to clear my thoughts and unwind." But it's really throughout his catalog—even in the ambient pieces he's made under another moniker, Blithe Field. There's just a sense that he's always trying to untangle something complex.
In conversation, the Chicago-via-Ohio songwriter matched his patiently folksy music, often dealing in long pauses and several qualifiers to fully make his point. “I'm definitely someone who will say things intentionally but then think about them too long if I have an opportunity to go back and adjust or update them later with whoever I said them to,” he said over the phone. Though that might not make interviews his favorite activity, it does make him one of the most thoughtful active songwriters. His albums have always been an inquisitive look at the mundanity of everyday life that chuckle back with a dark joke or a biting observation.
2017’s Enjoy The Great Outdoors was his debut as Spencer Radcliffe and Everyone Else, where he led a full band that gave his previously solitary songs, like the ones on his his 2015 breakthrough Looking In, a meatier backbone. His newest LP with the band, Hot Spring, which is premiering below, is his most cohesive collection yet. It’s a brightly arranged and meticulously pieced-together 10 song effort that boasts silky pedal steel from new Everyone Else member Pat Lyons. “For the last record, we were figuring out as a new band how to make 10 diverse songs that would sound good together. But this time since we’d been playing together much longer the LP was a more natural product of playing together,” explained Radcliffe.
A wonderfully left-of-center “Field Guide” in the press release for Hot Spring called the follow-up “a sequel of sorts” to the prodding, open-range headspace of Enjoy The Great Outdoors. “As much as I strive to not make the same thing twice and try to mix it up," Radcliffe admits. "It just builds upon some of the ideas from the previous record and approaches them with the viewpoint you get when you've had more time to think about those things.” Take opener “The Birds,” the first song Radcliffe wrote for the LP, which kicks off a gorgeous burst of cello, pedal steel, and acoustic guitar. He sings on the track, “So all the bugs in the dirt, digging it down to Earth, can ride on / To all the bugs in the dirt, living for what it’s worth—right on.”
Repetition has long been a facet of Radcliffe’s songs, evidenced his unsettlingly monotonous delivery on Enjoy the Great Outdoors highlight “Slamming On The Brakes,” where he opened with “Doe / A deer / A female deer / Crashing through the windshield, lips dry, eyes peeled.” Hot Spring treads similar ground like on “No Money,” where he also references universally popular songs, singing, “I’ve been dancing in the dark / I’ve been running down a dream / I’ve been running up that hill, but floating back down in a stream.”
“At least on this record, a recurring theme it's concerned with is just trying to observe the way that you're going about living and existing," he explained. "Sometimes you feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same result.”
Radcliffe primarily concerned himself with how to live throughout Hot Spring. Standout “Floss For The Future” encapsulates these existential conundrums with deadpan humor. The song finds asking a dentist whether or not flossing actually matters or if it’s “just a myth from my youth” to which he sings her reply, “She said: ‘Needle it through, pull it too, you know you’ve got to do what they tell you to—floss.’” There’s a sense no matter what’s best, it’s easy to still get stuck. He explained of the track, “You want to feel like you're doing things the right way. This deals with the implications of that and I think that's why I ended up being funny because I think it's a funny thing.”
The stunningly pastoral arrangements on Hot Spring transcend the anxiety-laced malaise throughout. The plaintive “Here Comes The Snow” gorgeously ambles to make for one of Radcliffe’s most beautiful songs yet especially when he sings, “Some people do the dance with death just to learn how to live.” Though the pedal steel and the guitars echo the touchstones of Cosmic American Music, the LP is hardly a country album. Single “Bloodletting” belies its pretty composition, full of lush strings and Lyons’ wailing pedal steel as Radcliffe sings, “Missiles dancing in the clouds that waterboarded roofs below / Peace and love were nice while they lasted, but now it’s time to lock and load. “
These aren’t literal battlefields Radcliffe sings about. As he was about sign off on the phone conversation, he mentions finding his dad’s copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and reading the line from his poem "As I Ponder'd In Silence,” “Know'st thou not there is but one theme for ever-enduring bards? / And that is the theme of War, the fortune of battles.”
He took one more long pause and said, “I had never read any Walt Whitman but he's talking about how he's thinking about all those things even though he's singing about every day life stuff. It's funny. It's a similar thing because I try to make my music for the normal-ass people doing real world shit.”