Chris Porterfield is one of the most honest songwriters alive.
It might not seem that way from a cursory listen to the music of Field Report, the band Porterfield has fronted now for three albums. As a writer, he couches much of his observations about relationships and human struggles in layers of metaphor. But start to peel back the meaning of the songs and you’ll arrive at deeply moving messages about the heart and what keeps it beating. That was the case with 2014’s Marigolden, a starkly intimate record where Porterfield came clean about his struggles with alcoholism. That album often felt like a dreamscape, like coming down from the haze of a buzz for the first time in weeks, only to find that the clarity of an undrunk mind felt as surreal as being on an alien planet. “The fog’s been lifting, and I’m doin’ alright,” Porterfield sang on a sublimely beautiful song called “Summons,” “But I still can’t look nobody in the eye.”
At the end of Marigolden, it felt like Porterfield got his happy ending. “I’ll be coming home to you,” went the refrain on “Summons.” On the album’s closing track, it was “I miss you more than tongues miss pulled teeth.” Here was the story of a man choosing the person he loved over his vices, coming home from a long tour, and committing to their life together. Roll credits. It wouldn’t have surprised me if Marigolden was the last Field Report album we ever heard.
But the story wasn’t over. For a time, it seemed like it might be. Marigolden arrived in the fall of 2014, and as each new year passed without much word from Porterfield, a new album felt further and further from possibility. Summertime Songs is the band’s first new album in the better part of three and a half years. From the first moments of opening track “Blind Spot,” though, it feels like we’re picking up right where we left off. And all, it turns out, is not well.
“Blind Spot” is a tense, tightly coiled piece of songwriting, caught somewhere between eighties-influenced indie pop and the folk/roots rock that has always been Field Report’s bread and butter. It’s a song about restlessness and running away. “This old body is a closet filled with hoarded nothings/My soul is a cathedral in an air raid,” Porterfield sings in the second verse.” There’s an itch to his words, to ditch the commitments he welcomed on Marigolden and wander in search of something more. But he knows he can’t do those things without leaving a wreckage in his path: “The trouble with flying is the gluing on of feathers/And there’s a body just laying at your feet,” goes the last verse. The chorus, as in “Summons,” is just a simple phrase repeated: “You were in my blind spot.” When you’re young, you make rash decisions without a thought for anything but your own whims. As you get older, you don’t have that luxury, simply because every choice you make has collateral damage.
By establishing those themes, “Blind Spot” is a gripping mission statement for Summertime Songs—which, despite its title, is hardly a set of road trip anthems. Instead, this record (mostly) bears the same cold, frosty, early morning fragility that made Marigolden such a beautiful, beguiling listen. According to the press materials for the record, Porterfield wrote all 10 tracks while his wife was pregnant with their first child. His anxiety at becoming a father is the main driving force of the songs. It’s also the trigger for his fight-or-flight instinct, which Porterfield ponders repeatedly throughout. Sometimes, he sees running away as a form of self-preservation (as on the propulsive first single, “Never Look Back”). Other times, like on the numerous songs about his marriage, he imagines his own regret at leaving it all behind. “I see you every time I go, and every time I think of home, and every time I feel alone, every time a plane flies low, every time I hear the phone, every time my cover’s blown,” he sings on “Every Time,” his voice becoming more distraught with each word.
Porterfield has a tendency as a writer to flit from one image or moment to the next without warning, like a TV flipping channels. The stream-of-consciousness style often makes it feel like he’s working through complex emotions in real time, for the rest of us to hear. That feeling was part of what made Marigolden such a fascinating record, and it lends a similar level of emotional rawness to Summertime Songs. Case-in-point is “Summertime,” an exuberant synth-blasted rocker that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Born in the U.S.A. In the space of less than five minutes, he goes from slow dancing with his wife on a summer evening, to standing on the porch and listening to the married couple next door scream at each other, to trying his hardest not to be scared shitless about becoming a father. It’s a technicolor feast of sound and emotion, almost overwhelming in its depth and breadth of feeling. No one else writes songs like this.
Summertime Songs is a brave record. Marigolden was more obviously courageous, because accepting and opening up about addiction is never an easy thing to do. Summertime Songs, though, is every bit as unguarded. It’s an album where the writer shines a spotlight on his deepest anxieties and insecurities, and on the frailties and imperfections of his marriage. Here, Porterfield acknowledges that you can love your partner deeply while still having days where your relationship just doesn’t work. Those days of doubt don’t undo the good things, though, as the album’s closing track epitomizes. Stark and haunting, “Everything I Need” is as honest and unflinching as any love song written this decade. “And if our health should leave, if the rescuers don’t see us, if the ones in power lie and deceive/I don’t trust this moment, baby, but I want to believe,” he bellows in desperation on the bridge. The last words of the record, meanwhile, are a re-commitment: “When everything is changing/You are everything I need.” It’s another satisfying end-credits roll for Porterfield and his family. Once again, I just hope it isn’t the end of the story.