There is a strong tradition of geography, a sense of place, throughout North American music. From Stephen Foster through to Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and Bon Iver, there is a recognition of the importance of home and of travel. Whereas English folk song tends to deal with historical narratives, its American counterpart, perhaps because of the early pioneer mentality, regularly focusses the human relationship with the physical, external world.
The latest addition to this ever-growing American songbook is the self-titled debut by Field Report (aka Chris Porterfield – one for the anagram fans there). Like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, with whom he has worked, Porterfield’s uses the vast but intimate patchwork of his home country as a backdrop for songs that deal with highly personal subjects.
Fergus Falls is a miracle dream narrative, lush with swooping backing vocals, anchored in a liminal, ambivalent world: ostensibly it’s Minnesota but it’s a distinctly personal Minnesota, made enticingly off-kilter by memory and reverie. It is an album standout, a superb vignette bursting with longing for a past real or imagined.
A soft bed of synths and ‘vistas of buckthorn’ entice the listener into The Year Of The Get You Alone before lyrics about ‘invasive species’ move suddenly from metaphor to stark confession: a tale of loves lost and unwanted.
A yearning to be elsewhere combined with acceptance and resignation pervades much of the album, most notably in Incommunicado, in which Porterfield sings ‘I could have been in California’ as if it were some promised land.
Chico The American utilises subtle electronics – and not so subtle visual imagery of booze and bloody cysts. Here and elsewhere pain lurks just beneath the surface. So close to the surface, in fact, that you always know it’s there.
Field Report has been several years in the making, and musically it shows. Old and new meet in carefully considered swirls of pedal steel, acoustic guitar and judiciously deployed synths. The production displays a handmade kind of perfectionism. Lyrically the album is an honest exploration of loss and failure: ‘Those fuckers stole my story, my American narrative,’ Porterfield sings on closer Route 18, a personal history that becomes epic through its relator’s depictions of minutiae. The great American narrative may well be unattainable, but with Field Report’s thoughtful, sometimes opaque country-folk Chris Porterfield demonstrates that the quest for the great American song is very much alive.
Review by: Thomas Blake