Photo of Spencer Radcliffe by Jackie Bon, via Blithe Field facebook page

Someone else’s home movies

On Blithe Field’s album Warm Blood

A few days ago on the train I sat down next to what I thought was an enormous stuffed dog. A few sentences into my paperback, I started to hear soft, wandering singing. There was a little boy under the dog, and I could see his tiny tanned arms wrapped around the plastic fur belly. The song was happy nonsense. When I finally saw the boy’s face, his eyes were looking everywhere with excitement. He had his puppy and he was on the train with his family — what else could he have possibly wanted in that moment?

If a full-grown man started singing on the train, other passengers would edge away from them. But somehow there’s something charming and magical about the way little kids sing — no predefined melody, no plan for lyrics, no self-conscious stuttering or stopping when someone else comes close enough to hear. When was the last time you sang like that? I couldn’t stop smiling on the train because this goofy oversized puppy and its owner were so glad to be there.

When I got home, I told my roommate about the experience. The reflected glow of the kid’s happiness didn’t last long for me, but an artist could build a diorama of mirrors and crystals around that moment to magnify it. That’s what Spencer Radcliffe, stage name Blithe Field, manages to assemble in “Perry St. 2.”

For a melody, Radcliffe loops the singing of a little kid. In the first few seconds of the recording you can hear a woman coaching the kid a little bit on the words, but the way the child sings is infinitely more unselfconscious and earnest. Even with a melody that bends in and out of tune, “Perry St. 2" turns nonsense rhyme into a real song.

The rest of the album, Warm Blood, is built similarly. Radcliffe uses recordings that were never meant for musical adaptation and turns them into songs. Many of the samples feel like they were lifted from VHS home movies — you can almost hear the tracking lines creep up the screen, blurring over-saturated clips that feature a zealous use of the zoom feature.

The previous entry in the three-part Perry Street series, “Perry St. 1,” features a mother using the old-as-steam-locomotion technique of “choo choo, here comes the food” to deliver a giggling infant’s first taste of squash.

The listener starts to wonder where Perry Street is. Was there a house there that Radcliffe lived in? Are these his home movies, maybe even recordings of his own mother? Could this be Radcliffe’s first taste of squash, turned into a piece of music for me to stream on Spotify between “Waterloo Sunset” and the new Porter Robinson album? There’s a song called “Quincey” on this album, and on the previous Blithe Field album there’s a clip of a woman saying, “there’s ol’ Quincey, give us a smile, Quincey.” Does that mean Quincey’s a relative of Radcliffe’s? Could that be Radcliffe’s nickname?

We don’t know any of the answers because as listeners we’re only getting half of the home video. The faces and relationships remain a mystery to us, which makes listening to the voices superimposed over synthesizers feel achingly personal and strangely, nostalgic. We don’t know these people, but we know (and love) people like them.

Not all of the samples come from home videos. “Live in Chicago,” my personal favorite on the album, uses a voicemail left by a friend who hasn’t been in contact much in the past few years.

The voicemail starts with a summary of what he’s been up to since they last talked, including his dishwashing job at Whole Foods, but begins to ramble after that. It’s the voicemail left by someone who doesn’t know quite what to say because he’s realizing his life isn’t exactly what he planned — he’s happy that his Whole Foods discount even applies to beer, but the phrenetic drumming and chirping synthesizers in the background reinforce that mostly this guy’s walking through the big city and feeling kind of lonely. When the song fades out there’s even a chorus singing “we all get twisted somewhere along the line.” We can’t hear how Radcliffe responded to the voicemail, but we can see how he might approach a call back through this outro.

Before hearing the whole song you thought “Live in Chicago” meant ‘live’ like a live concert, but at the end you realize that it’s like living in Chicago, becoming a different person than you thought you’d be at this point in your life.

At the end of the voicemail he says, “Hopefully this message hasn’t been too horrible to listen to.” It wasn’t.

The closing three tracks on the album are murkier than the rest, but not sadder — somehow, these songs invent a melancholy optimism, like the color you get when you blend nostalgia with the contentment you feel in your present life.

Everyone perceives the line between emotionally meaningful and heavy-handed differently. For some tastes, the samples and talking throughout Warm Blood are a distraction from the “real” music, the sounds of the guitar and drums. But the samples are what make these songs so special.

The echoed handclaps and musicbox melodies wouldn’t add up to the same impact without the setting lent to them by the samples, and the voicemail would feel meaningless without the post-rock context that crescendos out-of-control so hard that you lose the thread of the narration for a few seconds.

The album opens with someone reassuring the listener that “fear is not unusual.” And that “we want to know, what’s going on? And what’s going to happen with our loved ones? And what’s going to happen with us?”

He simply says, “I don’t really know.” And, “If that has ever happened to you, you know that you barely breathe for a moment, your heart pounds with fear.”

I think he’s talking about death, and about what happens when we die. But the interesting thing is that Radcliffe cuts him off. There’s no more of the speech (sermon?) on the rest of the album’s nine tracks.

Instead, Radcliffe rolls right into songs with samples of children singing and laughing, of people struggling in their current lives in Chicago. Despite the evidence in the first song, this is an album about life.

It’s not an album about your life, but it could be.

All of Blithe Field’s material is available to download on Bandcamp, and two albums, including Warm Blood, are available to stream on Spotify.