Don’t you love it when you go to see one band and end up finding another? That’s been my luck more than a few times, including one night in late 2014 when I heard Milwaukee-based singer-songwriter Field Report (Chris Porterfield). He was in Champaign opening for fellow Wisconsinites Phox, who I absolutely adored at the time (still do, really), though their musical career was brief.
But that night it was Porterfield who left me stunned.
At the time, he was newly sober and touring his sophomore album Marigolden. The songs trafficked in the detritus of his decisions, and the wary wonder of a new perspective. That evening, he played “Michelle,” and it was one of the few times that a song I’ve never heard before left me absolutely thunderstruck.
The song begins with piano that sounds as though it’s pacing the room, antsy and absorbed, before Porterfield’s voice bursts in, sustaining the opening lyric, “Oh Michelle.” He holds the “Oh” as if it were a scar someone had brushed against, triggering pain that hasn’t yet dulled and resides still beneath the skin. It’s a guttural response, summarizing the anguish of his tryst with a married woman caught in an abusive relationship.
Musically, Porterfield writes tender songs, but it’s his lyricism that’s most striking. I count him among a small cohort of contemporary songwriters who capture scenes with literary specificity, including Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and Phoebe Bridgers. In fact, one of the lines from “Michelle”—”I went looking for the river, but I only made it to the railroad bend”—remains a favorite to this day.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The song opens in color, a foreboding of what’s to come. “Tonight is bruise-black swelling golden green,” Porterfield sings before recounting a dream in which the momentum of their relationship, its sheer impossibility, ends in the tragedy of a car crash. “And the car was Shelby blue,” he recounts, holding onto the color as it pangs across other memories. “Blue like the one in the photo of your father and you/Blue like the label on the beer you always choose/Blue like me and you, Michelle.”
A guitar picks up the piano’s earlier agitation, as the song builds out into full frame, the image sharpening with touches of pedal steel. But despite that sonic edge toward hope, the closing verse falls like a punch. Porterfield, having dreamed of a car, pleads with his lover to run away. “If we leave right now we’ll be there by morning/There being anywhere but here,” he sings, his voice weary with resignation. “We can make a new start; we can make up new names/I’ve already picked yours, Michelle.”