Field Report, 'Field Report'
By Jonathan Nelson
September 26, 2012
Jonathan Nelson writes on theology and music. He currently resides in Durham, NC, and is pursuing graduate work at Duke Divinity School.
An album is much like a photograph. Albums capture moments in time in all their unique particularities. Photographs capture physical expressions. Albums capture emotions or moods. Photographs capture styles of appearance and the influences they mimic. Albums capture styles of music and the influences they render. Field Report’s Chris Porterfield was aware of the photographic capacity of music when he decided to record a series of long-crafted songs at Justin Vernon’s (of Bon Iver fame) studio. Porterfield recalls, “We were particularly interested in recording at his studio (April Base) because of the large live room. We wanted to capture the sound of a band in a moment.”
The moments caught in Field Report’s self-titled debut are bleak. Recorded in December 2011, the album is wrought with longing, disappointment, failure, loneliness, broken relationships, and heavy drinking. Porterfield, previously of DeYarmond Edison (featuring pre-Bon Iver Vernon), muses on these themes with much care and detail. His folkish croons and Americana plucking are ornamented by an array of instruments. But Field Report features Porterfield in a string of downhearted moments.
Porterfield’s voice is strikingly familiar. It recalls the more recent and somber recordings of Bruce Springsteen and the solo work of Glen Hansard. The common element in all these singers is the contrast of tenderness and gruffness in their vocals. At moments, Porterfield’s voice soars to the point of almost cracking (as in “Fergus Falls”). In others, his singing nearly wanes into spoken word (as in “The Year of the Get You Alone”). These qualities of Porterfield’s vocals betray a sense of waning confidence—another moment in Field Report’s catalogue of vulnerable emotion.
Porterfield’s vocals are carried by the constant plucking of a guitar. Harmonizing vocals, piano, keyboards, synths, strings, percussion and other instruments decorate Porterfield and his well-worn-sounding acoustic guitar. Built around the plucking, the instrumentation adds an airy—almost transcendent—element to an otherwise somber and forlorn set of songs. This is especially evident on “Fergus Falls” when subtle horns, swooping strings, and soaring harmonized vocals steer the song away from its dejected beginning. Yet, the instrumentation also adds to the bleakness of Field Report. On “Evergreen,” Porterfield’s despairing vocals and muffled plucking are complimented with an eerie synth hook. Here, the band is caught up in another bleak moment.
Yet, even on the bleakest moments of Field Report, Porterfield is not simply moping. His incredibly detailed—and often narrative (i.e.,“Taking Alcatraz”)—lyrics give good reason for despondence. One of the reasons seems to be human failure—the most pervasive theme on Field Report. Sometimes, Porterfield accounts for the paradigmatic failure of others: On “Circle Drive,” he sings, “Noah was a drunk; David chased women; Paul was always seen with younger men; Stephen joined the Army and jumped on a grenade; I took a punch for Peter, never heard from him again.” But more often, this failure is personal: On “Captain Video,” Porterfield laments, “I just want to speak the truth; I have not been able to.” And again on “I Am Not Waiting Anymore”: “I have read between the lines I have been wrong every time…” Field Report catches a band in somewhat of a sullen moment of reflection.
Unfortunately, reflective and moody music gets a bad rap. Field Report is not background music, it is not uplifting, and it is not an easy listen. It is an album that demonstrates the cathartic capacity of music. It is cathartic for the band that catches reflective or sorrowful moments in order to disembody them. It is cathartic for the listener who finds their reflective or sorrowful moments embodied—given expression—in song. Field Report is a moment caught in wire. For that reason, it can and should be a moment shared with many.