Its slowness will bore some listeners, but patient listening reveals a bizarre world.
With Spencer Radcliffe, the real can be embedded in the surreal. His music can at first glance seem so realistic as to be mundane. It’s only with a great deal of patience that one begins to notice the bizarreness latent in his ramblings. Such is the case with Hot Spring, Radcliffe’s follow-up to 2017’s Enjoy the Great Outdoors.
If you listen to the LP casually, you’ll only hear his monotone-warbled observations about daily routines, conversations and changing seasons. He’s got his band—affectionately called “Everyone Else”—with him, and their unassuming contributions (guitar, pedal steel, percussion, cello and backing vocals) add to the sense that the album is just so much meandering through meadows. But bubbling up is a mythical eccentricity: mice that operate a clock, man-eating centaurs, bug-defending dogs. The collection is a kind of endurance test: you’ll only find its hidden treasures if you stay and ramble for a while.
The test is never more obvious than on “Floss for the Future.” Radcliffe uses part of the song to record a conversation with his dentist, here voiced by band member Tina Scarpello. She floats out the following advice: “Needle it through, pull it too/ You know you’ve got to do what they tell you to/ Floss.” The counseling hardly seems worthy material for a song. But Radcliffe’s errant observations about time and death—“I was laugh, laugh, laughing/ Laughing right at the void,” “I’m flossing for remaining days”—transform the dentist’s words into divine guidance. The act of flossing ends up a gesture that is at once life-affirming and points to the end of all existence.
Also thoughtfully entwining life and death is “Clocktower,” Hot Spring’s most moving track. It avoids placing verses around a repeating chorus and instead consists of three key topics (an autumn walk to the clock tower, the introduction of time-traveling mice that live in the clock and the clock’s ticking) described in two verses and a coda. The mice insist, “You have to close your eyes, then this is what you do/ Realize the past, the present, and the future all are inside you.” It ends with the clock sounding out through Radcliffe’s voice; all time accrues in its rhythm.
Another radical feature of Hot Spring is its incorporation of a country-western aesthetic that has mostly been absent from Radcliffe’s oeuvre. These genre elements could easily seem like some hipster gimmick, but the album’s orchestrations are accomplished and authentically country. The pedal steel and guitar mix together in twangy, laid-back harmony—the result is a little like Willie Nelson at his most stoned. The cello is also a welcome addition, as is especially apparent on the album’s only instrumental, “Thick Fog.” This is where listeners will most clearly hear the complexity of the LP’s arrangements: the low-tone dissonance of the cello lingers beneath the pedal steel and gentle guitar to suggest the presence of the peculiar in an otherwise pleasant-sounding track.
The country-western components of Hot Spring also implicitly complicate stereotypical understandings of rural America. The album counters the tendency of city folk to see agrarian zones and habits as simpleminded or backwards. (Perhaps this makes the LP a kind of companion to Elizabeth Catte’s recent anthology, Left Elsewhere.) There is plenty of simplicity here, but Radcliffe finds a revelatory strangeness embedded within it that doesn’t fit neatly into any category, political or otherwise.
It’s not easy to join Radcliffe in his search. Hot Spring’s entrenched slowness will undoubtedly bore some listeners, and Radcliffe seems unwilling to vary his approach and find new ways through the wilderness. But this allows him to gradually whittle away at the pastoral in order to expose some dark, previously invisible utopia. We might begin by calling the facets of this utopia Dreamericana, and Radcliffe eventually affirms that it’s well worth taking some time to discover their uncomfortable majesty.