You can arguably predict the mood of a Field Medic album by the look of Kevin Patrick Sullivan’s hair in the cover art. On the front of 2017’s cheeky, joyful Songs From the Sunroom the lo-fi folk singer-songwriter’s red curls are big and bouncy; on 2020’s more somber Floral Prince, they’re closely cropped and hidden beneath a blue cap. The title of Field Medic’s new record, Grow Your Hair Long If You’re Wanting to See Something That You Can Change, is cryptic enough that it might suggest an optimistic collection of songs, but the photo of Sullivan on its cover dashes that hope. He sits on a bed, shirtless and hunched over, with matted locks and a sleepy, despondent expression, as if he’s deciding whether to shower for the first time in days or put it off until tomorrow.
Neglect of self-care can be a subtle sign of depression, but Sullivan is anything but subtle about the gut-wrenching personal suffering that drives the album. “I wanna fall off the face of the Earth / And probably die,” he sings to start opener “Always Emptiness.” Taken out of context, those lyrics could sound like a cry for help, but Sullivan, who’s been releasing music as Field Medic since 2013, has increasingly used his project to process struggles with addiction and mental illness. Encouraged by the positive feedback he received for his work on Floral Prince, including the confessional “It’s So Lonely Being Sober,” he’s taken Grow Your Hair Long as a chance to delve deeper into his psyche while employing bleaker, blunter language. Throughout the record, harrowing lyrics rub up against gentle percussion and silky guitar, harmonica, and banjo in a collision of punk angst and tender, folky melodies. While Sullivan’s characteristic kitschiness peeks through at times, every glimpse of levity is underpinned by darkness. On “Noonday Sun,” he rhymes “Feels like I’m riding in a hearse” with “Everything went from bad to worse,” and he’s said that early album single “I Think About You All the Time” is a love song not to a partner but to alcohol.
Sullivan typically records on his own—sometimes using his phone or a four-track—but he departed from his usual solitary process for Grow Your Hair Long, enlisting Nate Lich on drums and Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist Nick Levine (who makes music as Jodi) on steel guitar. The resulting sound is richer than Field Medic’s previous lo-fi stylings, with plenty of breathing room in its more upbeat moments. But even in those spots, a closer listen reveals an underlying anguish. Internal torment can be all-consuming, and Sullivan is no longer afraid to acknowledge that.
Field Medic’s Grow Your Hair Long If You’re Wanting to See Something That You Can Changeis available through Bandcamp.