In Praise of Chicago’s Blithe Field
Nostalgia is a locked chest in an attic. We can sit next to it. We can drum our fingers on its wooden exterior. We can jiggle its lock. We can put our ear up to the chest and rattle it, trying to surmise whatever’s inside. At night, it seems to glow a faint and dusky gold; during the day, it’s dusty and dull and clunky. The problem is that we can never reopen this chest, and so we forget its exact contents, warp them in our minds, exaggerate their worth. Sometimes they become more beautiful, sometimes stranger, sometimes sadder, but altogether different.
Art in all its forms can help us get a peek inside, but, significantly, it’s not a key to the lock (which you lost long ago). It’s more of a crowbar: crude, blunt, dependent on the arms that hold it. It can help relieve that pressure building up inside the locked and heavy chest.
Blithe Field is the acoustic-electronic-experimental crowbar of singer-songwriter Spencer Radcliffe. I’ll admit that I’m not really familiar with Radcliffe’s work under his own name; it was only through researching Blithe Field for this article that I realized it’s more of a side project to his eponymous output. If the inventiveness of Blithe Field is any indication, I owe his main project a listen.
Blithe Field has been putting out albums and compilations through self-distribution channels and various labels since 2008. At this point, the project has established its unique style and approach. These songs often employ electronic composition techniques like samplers and drum machines, but pair them with acoustic instrumentation. They utilize fuzzy samples of voicemails, home movies, and other personal ephemera, alongside wooly, hand-worn textures, keyboard presets, and errant snippets of children’s instruments (recorders, casios). Categorically, they motion towards various experimental genres, like drone, minimalism, collage, and ambient. It sounds kind of like if plunderphonic heroes The Books were only allowed to sample the first twelve years of their lives alongside a fluttering acoustic guitar. Overall, it’s a palette of unique elements that is able to laser-focus the entire project on a specific mood and theme.
I’m always amazed at instrumental projects that are able to create a consistent theme without the use of language. Sure, some of the meaning-creation is done with album art and song titles, but those must work in tandem with the compositions themselves to achieve something consistent and moving. Blithe Field dwells on themes of nostalgia and childhood, pairing titles like “bible school” and “Crushing” and “Indian Head Test Pattern” and “Ashleigh & AJ’s Attic” with doleful and sedate compositions that suggest glimpses of a life steeped in the rainy days of the past.
My favorite Blithe Field album is 2010’s beautiful wave ’74 released on Messy Life Records. This collection of songs is the most fully realized, and the most beat-heavy; the songs feel less like sketches and more like complete thoughts. But like Radcliffe’s other albums, we’re only afforded fragments of a much larger picture: what is the significance of 1974? what about the graves on the cover marked “S” and “J”? the That 70’s Show sample? the “three laments pt. 2” with no part 1?
These mysterious gaps motion towards the broader complexities of memory without letting us in—like that locked chest. By being denied entrance, we as listeners are able to piece together our own patchwork of the past with these songs as the soundtrack. We’re invited to project our own childhood onto these voicemails and ethereal beats. For all its simplicity and introversion and otherworldly strangeness, the album is relatable in a heartbreaking way.
In contrast, the latest collection from the project, this year’s Face Always Toward the Sun, is murkier and less-straightforward than beautiful wave ’74, at times almost grating with its static-y drones and repetitive loops. It hits the same “bittersweet” notes but it’s way heavier on the bitter side. Some of these songs feel like they’re on the verge of unraveling and falling apart, like a family quilt you’ve wrapped yourself in for too many winters.Others suggest a foggy old camera lens peering inward. The textures on this album sometimes sound like Boards of Canada synths, with their detuned quavering reminiscent of bygone and corroding forms of media. But even with outside reference points, Blithe Field always presents a singular sound that’s ideal for late-night headphone listening.
Maybe it’s that above-mentioned self-projection that has me believing this, but I feel like the person behind Blithe Field must have grown up in a small Midwestern town. These songs are shot through with the innocence cultivated in such an environment, no stranger to harsh and hermetic winters alongside beautiful natural landscapes. I like this music because it’s sad without being melancholy, sweet without being saccharine. It’s as if that loss of innocence were only temporary, as if we can crack that locked chest open whenever we feel ready.