BY DUTCH GODSHALK
Chris Porterfield, leader of the spacious, digital-folk group Field Report, defines his band’s sophomore album Marigolden as a meditation on change – the change of seasons; the change of a band discovering itself; the change of a man wrestling with sobriety – and how change doesn’t really end but perpetuates, somersaults through time and becomes part of our fabric.
The symbol he used to describe this idea was the marigold, “a hardy flower,” one that’s known for its resilience, its ability to survive difficult conditions. Even so, he said, “marigolds die off every year; if you want to have them again, you gotta dig them up and replant them …
“There’s this whole concept [in ‘Marigolden’] of the moment of change, but then realizing that you’re never really out of that moment; we’re all just kind of in a series of those moments and there’s no tidy ending to it. You just gotta keep doing the work and digging it up and letting it blossom and letting it die and sort of embracing that process. I think that scene kind of runs through all the material.”
It’s natural that Porterfield would be having these thoughts; he’s been in a state of change for a while now. Since Field Report released its debut album in 2012, the songwriter’s been touring at length for the first time in his life, living on the road and spending weeks or even months away from his wife back home in Milwaukee, Wis.
In addition to all this – and perhaps because of it – the singer found himself leaning a bit too heavily on alcohol. “Booze is between the lines of just about everything that I wrote up until this time last year,” he said over the phone on a recent Thursday afternoon. “I didn’t realize how many breadcrumbs I’d left behind in so many songs before I realized that I had to shift my relationship with alcohol.”
It was around October 2013 when Porterfield decided to quit drinking, but the change hasn’t been easy. “It’s still something I’m dealing with, and – like we were talking about, thematically, about how you’re never really at the other side of something – it’s not tied up with a bow. It’s not something where we can clap our hands and say, ‘Well, what’s next?’ It’s not that at all. It’s living in it and just being conscious of my own agency in all of this …
“But, that being said, [quitting drinking] has improved my writing,” he said. “It’s made me a better writer, made me a more confident writer, and it’s made me less of a one-note writer, I think.”
Evidence of Porterfield’s booze-less, more improved songwriting is all over Marigolden, an earthy, textured record with dreamy imprints of the singer’s early work with Justin Vernon (AKA Bon Iver).
“There’re a lot of songs on the record that are different sonically than what we did on our first [self-titled] record,” he said. Field Report’s newest effort shows the band stretching their legs a bit more and experimenting with their own plodding, echoing, synth-laden form of folk.
Recorded in wintry Ontario, Canada – “It was constantly snowing several hours north of Toronto,” Porterfield said, “next to the Canadian Forest Preserve in a river valley” – the songs on Marigolden deftly capture the environment in which they were created; the album entire evokes the sensation of staring lazily through frosted windows.
Early-released tracks – like the Traveling Wilburys-esque “Home,” a speckled, up-tempo, light-in-the-darkness tune about the long-awaited return of a wearied traveler – have been well met, with most critics regarding them as signs of evolution for the band.
The record’s opening track, the vaguely optimistic “Decision Day,” marks another strong step forward; with images of “milk and cloud and snow,” it’s a misty, floating ghost of a tune, that seems to implore listeners to get their hands dirty and submit to life’s shifting tides.
Thematically, “Decision Day” sets the tone for all of Marigolden, Porterfield said. “It’s all about having some kind of awakening or realization. It’s asking the listener to let go and just go wherever this ride takes us.”
And where exactly is the ride taking us? Difficult to say. Maybe it’s not really taking us anywhere. Maybe the ride represents Porterfield’s oft-mentioned, unending state of change. It’s uncertain, but, for Field Report’s leader, that’s kind of the point.
“[A song] doesn’t have to be journalism, where you’re reducing uncertainty,” he said. “You can create uncertainty as long as it leads to some emotional or cosmic end. As long as I’m approaching a song with something to say, or adding something to the greater conversation, there aren’t any rules.”
Marigolden will be released by Partisan Records on Oct. 7, 2014.
Follow Dutch Godshalk on Twitter @DutchGodshalk.
IF YOU GO
Field Report will play Underground Arts,
1200 Callowhill St., Philadelphia, PA 19107,
on Thursday, Oct. 2. Doors at 8 p.m.
General Admission: $9.50.
More information: undergroundarts.com.