In the hands of Field Report’s Chris Porterfield, the word “home” starts shaping itself into something that signifies far more than just a dwelling or a town.
Field Report’s second album, Marigolden, finds Porterfield writing about home with such yearning and fiery certainty that the word seems much bigger, weighted with nuances and multi-layered significance. In the context of the 10 emotionally vulnerable songs that make up the record, home stands in for everything that is right—or should be right—in the world.
It’s evoked most explicitly, in terms of being homesick, in “Home (Leave The Lights On)” and “Cups and Cups,” but it’s more than just a physical place. The themes that emerge throughout the album—indecision, displacement, personal limits, grief and, most centrally, sobriety—all reflect the idea of home as the origin, the right fit, protective and familiar and ultimately the calm center of life’s storm.
“The body remembers what the mind forgets,” sings Porterfield on “Home,” a line that could reference the tolls of heavy drinking just as easily as a deep-seated desire to reconnect with the comforts of home. In both instances, that line (and many like it) points to the differences between this record and the 2012 debut, Field Report.
A former bandmate of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Megafaun’s Brad Cook, Phil Cook and Joe Westerlund, Porterfield had left music behind in favor of stable full-time work and marriage. But over the years, he kept writing songs. The lyrics on Field Report are imaginative, detailed and highly literate, creating character-driven songs, sketches that reinforce their narratives with imagery that coalesces into a remarkable sense of place.
The best of them packed huge emotional conflicts into the tight spaces of songs. Like a scant few others, Porterfield’s songs can have the impact of fully formed short stories, but in only a couple hundred words. “Taking Alcatraz” follows a nameless character through an arc of decision and regret, having been invited to take part in the 1969 Native American occupation of Alcatraz, yet decides, scared, to stay behind, watching guiltily from a distance. “Fergus Falls” uses the recurring dream about an icy freefall to stand in for a woman’s own diverted hopes.
But that first record is songs written before there were any listeners. Suddenly, having listeners changed Porterfield’s life drastically, with two years spent on the road. And that’s where Marigolden’s distinctly personal songs come from.
The piano ballad “Ambrosia,” with its chorus of “nothing’s gonna change,” examines the sort of inevitability of what Porterfield calls “all this wishful drinking.” Paired with verses turned inward is one about growing up with the sheriff’s kid, who “was cruel to the other kids just for fun” and later on “died alone on a golf course with a gun.” There’s a strong sense of Porterfield fearing a point of no return, enough to make him drop his own resistance to change. And when there’s an extra “maybe” thrown into that chorus at the end, it means everything.
Hints and shadows of heavy drinking’s toll that are scattered elsewhere throughout the album crystalize in the last couple songs, “Summons” and “Enchantment.” But some of the album’s most striking lyrical moments come not out of the struggle with alcohol but in relation to the still-unusual light of sobriety. When normal isn’t normal, the world is weird indeed.
“I’ve been two weeks dry, in a bar every night / I’ve been pissing coffee, quinine and lime / And the fog’s been lifting and I’m doing alright / But I still can’t look nobody in the eye,” Porterfield sings on “Summons.”
“Enchantment,” the album’s folkiest song, plays it with a sly grin: “I cashed in my 30-day chip for a kiss,” sings Porterfield, describing a strange Easter day in New Mexico.
Musically, Marigolden inverts the lush folk-rock formula of Field Report. At times, it’s a striking change, moving away from the conventional yet effective arrangements in favor of bolder studio strokes, including liberal use of synthesizer and drum machine. A potentially uneasy pairing, the tactic works to give the songs unexpected sonic depth. Working with producer Robbie Lackritz (Feist) in Ontario, Field Report stretch into poppier territory, especially on “Wings” and “Home,” tunes that might surprise prior fans.
But Porterfield remains a songwriting talent who grounds his work in strong, relatable emotions. On Marigolden, like Field Report, that makes for exceptional songs, and ones that don’t reveal everything on the first listen. Nuance, detail and careful construction make the songs live and breathe. When all those elements come together, the home in Porterfield’s songs can feel pretty universal.