The third band to come out of Eau Claire, Wisconsin’s DeYarmond Edison after Bon Iver and Megafaun, Field Report is an anagram of its creator Chris Porterfield, a seemingly insignificant piece of information that actually captures the band’s essence perfectly. Simultaneously personal and mysterious, specific and ambiguous, Field Report’s self-titled debut album is a collection of 10 songs that consist of folk precision and just enough breathing room to amaze.
The album captivates from the very beginning with the stunning Fergus Falls, an exemplary balance between the personal and the relatable and the general and the specific. On Bon Iver’s second album, Justin Vernon immaculately interspersed actual locales within a plethora of fictional locales that sounded real, all to create a vague, comforting sense of place. Field Report achieves the same comfort immediately with Fergus Falls, whose namesake is a small city in Minnesota. The track starts with an isolated banjo and then an isolated Porterfield as he describes a move from one place to another: “I could have been an artist if I had the tools. I could have been a preacher if I suffered fools. When we move into the city I know I will have to pay my dues.” Midway, the song swells into a chorus. Porterfield, now not alone, can pay his dues comfortably.
It would seem ironic, then, that the next track, titled The Year Of The Get You Alone, describes the isolation of small town life. Yet, Porterfield views these characters from a simultaneous Bruce Springsteen-ian sense of relatability and all-togetherness and detached condescension: “You’ve been sleeping with director’s daughters and taking drugs I’ve never tried / I drink at home most days and sometimes sleep with my wife.” The Year Of The Get You Alone also sets up Porterfield’s well-developed fascination with the complexity and psychology of the film world.
Unlike fellow Springsteen idolaters The Gaslight Anthem, however, Porterfield doesn’t name check Hollywood celebrities to create a vague, nostalgic, noirish stylistic statement that a famous person’s essence speaks for itself. Instead, as on standout track Chico the American, Porterfield essentially equates the struggles of Hollywood stars (Chico is a fictional Hollywood star who died early) with the alcoholic struggles of small-town America. Unphased by celebrity, Porterfield instead waxes poetic humanistically, paying tribute to those who died early, known and unknown, in a musical eulogy that doubles as surrealistic dream, all without falling victim to the obtuseness of Old Weird America.
Furthermore, give Porterfield credit for taking a musical genre that too often delves into self-seriousness and creating something self-aware and funny. On I Am Not Waiting Anymore, the third track, Porterfield has already set you up for an album that heavily involves the absurdity and sadness of Hollywood, when he sings, “I spent eight long years working on my screenplay / It’s a teen movie with young actresses that plays to the middle aged.” The key to this line is that few movies like that actually exist; as a listener, you’re not so sympathetic towards Porterfield for thinking his idea would work, rendering the song halfway satirical, exploring the self-absorbed, egotistical Hollywood artist.
Even more self-aware, Porterfield pays tribute to Bob Dylan not through explicit appropriation, but rather through his own contemporary version of an extremely self-consciously Dylan-esque line: “I could have been in California for coming up now on nine years / but I wouldn’t be here pining for you–I never would have made my way out here / where Dahmer sings the blues with Liberace as they sip on fifty cent beers / and watch themselves on a tube Hitachi holding hands in a bathroom mirror.”
Overall, with Field Report’s debut album, Porterfield offers his personal interpretation of celebrity life and death, creation and murder, alcoholism and sex addiction: he feels a connection to anybody who has ever felt miserable, isolated, and purposeless. As much as so many contemporary classic Americana or alt-country albums (Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker especially comes to mind) have been birthed as a result of a specific moment or traumatic event in its creator’s life, Field Report’s debut maintains a wondrous sense of ambiguity while still creating an unbelievable urgency. Like all the best music, you didn’t even know you needed it, and after listening to it, you can’t imagine life without it.