Chicago’s Spencer Radcliffe and L.A. native R.L. Kelly (alias for Rachel Levy) make an exceptionally compatible duo on Brown Horse, released earlier this month on Orchid Tapes. Though Radcliffe’s brand of heady and meandering pop isn’t perfectly congruent with Levy’s simple, saccharine tunes, the two converge on a thematic plane. Ultimately, Brown Horse is a record about yearning, whether it’s for a past we can no longer access or an idyllic future that may never actually play out. R. L. Kelly and Spencer Radcliffe both convey an understated authority, bordering the line between youth and maturity, self-deprecation and self-assurance, and quietly asserting themselves through their liminality.
Radcliffe has always had an affinity for crushing melodies. July’s Keeper was lyrically driven, with melodies whose repetition burns a nice hole. Brown Horse opens with his breathless, exhausted exclamation: “Oh, my god, I’ve really done it this time / I loved you so much that it was a crime.” It’s simple, the rhyme almost infantile, a tender admittance of failure attributed to feeling. Meanwhile, the song can’t avoid being soaked in feeling itself, with delicately sung lines like, “I wait for you to come back and refill me like you always do.” It eventually does break out of this waiting room, with an abrupt clamor of xylophone sounds, acoustic guitar, and flute recorder. Radcliffe’s songs are generally invested in this kind of oscillation: between reflection and memory, and a desire to move forward in the present.
Brown Horse is an unforeseen departure from Radcliffe’s previous work into the stranger realm of electroacoustic experimentation. He’s combined delicate vocals and acoustic guitar with washes of electronic sound and jarring spoken vocals, and he moves back and forth deftly between these poles. When they come into contact—as in “Dorsal Collapse”, when Radcliffe’s voice hovers delicately in the high register above a sea of whirring mechanical sounds—the effect is jarring. Some of his lines are bluntly self-deprecating, but just beneath this surface of humor and irony is a sense of disquietude, of a blind grasp at anything meaningful.
The title track suggests a progression into brighter territory, with R.L. Kelly’s introduction into the record. Her voice is overlaid with Radcliffe’s in what becomes an anthemic cry for a renewed life. It’s still about wanting, but it picks up momentum and garners a frantic energy that the previous tracks lack. This is what’s ultimately satisfying about Brown Horse: it gallops through different landscapes, refusing to dwell in any one place for long. There are moments of pause, moments of slippage into spaces of total desperation, but it manages to avoid getting mired down.
The transition from the title track into R.L. Kelly’s half of the split is seamless, since “I Don’t Like Remembering Anymore” presents a comedown to that sonic blast. It mirrors Radcliffe’s first track in its thematic content, addressing an ambivalence toward someone who’s absent. In dulcet tones over gentle fingerpicking she admits, “You’re not here and that says everything / you and I are nothing more than how things used to be / I miss how things used to be.” Levy’s side of the split similarly evokes longing, the problems of nostalgia, and self-deprecation, although hers comes more subtly.
Levy has always had a tendency to make bright, poppy melodies that contrast with her often darker lyrics, and her work on Brown Horse is little exception to this. Her side of the split is even more melodically focused than Radcliffe’s—her vocals continually occupy the forefront, with their compelling harmonies and gentle lilt. But these songs feel altogether fuller than her previous works. Toward the end of “I Cannot”, the juxtaposition of two vocal lines with synth sounds carries what began as a simple guitar ballad into a more intense emotive space. “Teen Porn” is a huge contrast to the surrounding tunes, an intricate electronic instrumental with big drum machines and bass punctuated by brassy chords, smoother synth waves, and jazz accents.
While Radcliffe relies on sowing narratives to explore his longing, Levy is more interested in directly examining her immediate feelings and fears. “Again” suggests the circularity of her thoughts about a person, which are “eating her alive… again.” There is a sense of immediacy in the instrumentation as well—quick, urgent guitar picking pushes the songs forward. But there’s no disconnect with the concept of memory here—she’s invoking the effects of the past on the present, suggesting that memory is elusive and past mistakes are all too easy to repeat.
Brown Horse is sonically sprawling, as much thematic coherence as there is. Ultimately, Radcliffe’s side feels cleaner and more even than Levy’s, both in sound and arrangement of content. While Levy’s songs draw on the past but mostly orient themselves toward inward feelings in the present moment, Radcliffe’s songs feel more thickly nostalgic, rooted in memory. Perhaps then, read as a continuous progression rather than two sides to one story, the shift from Radcliffe’s narrative storytelling to Levy’s emotive outpouring can be viewed as a move toward the engagement with the present that we see in the final track.
R.L. Kelly and Spencer Radcliffe both invoke nostalgia as something that’s insurmountable, that becomes the thing you can get mired in, but then turn it on its head and insist that for these reasons, maybe it’s worthwhile to take a step outside. ”The Great Big World” closes out the album, bringing Levy and Radcliffe back together just as deftly as the title track at the midway point had, this time with more than a hint of optimism. After all its enumeration of worry, the familiar desperate search for an intangible place to live is transformed into the resounding refrain, “and the great big big big world keeps spinning”—suggesting that we still have a life in the present, replete with the possibility of spaces we haven’t discovered yet. Most of these tracks are bummers, but all the wallowing is punctuated by pockets of light. Together, these two artists use little bits of light to generate a lasting aura.