In his music video for “The Dream Is Dead,” Tulsa songwriter M. Lockwood Porter is at the tail end of the fifth stage of grief—acceptance.“The dream is dead, and everybody knows it,” goes the refrain, as an energized Porter, awakened by a glimmer of hope buried deep in a barrage of bad news, hangs fliers across Tulsa in hopes of inspiring human connection.
“There’s a better world coming,” taped to the glass of a hollowed-out community center.
“I will do no more hoping.”
“I will get out on the street.”
The single, from Porter’s new album Communion in the Ashes, makes a salient point about our collective sense of doom, whether about politics or about society as a whole. He’s right: The dream is dead. Everybody does know it. So now what?
Porter’s complicated relationship with “the dream,” in the sense of the classic American dream, started early, in his hometown.
“Growing up in Skiatook, I didn’t think, ‘I live in this town where there are less opportunities for people.’ I thought everyone was the same. In a lot of ways, I based my conception of myself around the American dream … that I could be this self-made person,” Porter said. “That really got challenged for me over the last decade in a lot of ways. Going to Yale gave me a sense of it because I thought I was coming in on equal footing, but a lot of those kids went to board schools, prep schools … they know things I don’t know, and I may never understand the world the way they do. There’s a barrier to entry.”
He graduated in 2009, shortly after the Great Recession, and moved to the Bay Area of California as he and his friends struggled to make sense of their new economic reality. While there, he taught for four years in a low-income public school, illuminating the dearth of opportunity for people who grow up in poverty.
“Seeing how much of a struggle it was for everyone with basic things like health insurance made me question that fundamental optimism I’d had,” Porter said.
He mourned that loss on 2016’s How to Dream Again. “Anyone can make it in the USA / All you have to do is struggle and pray,” he laments on “The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be.” Throughout that album, Porter not only laments the loss of his American dream but also recontextualizes for himself what it means to be a songwriter on the other side of that.
“Am I a coward to keep singing songs of sadness and love / With so much blood in the streets, so many bombs up above,” he sings on “Sad/Satisfied.”
“I started trying to fuse songwriting, art, the sociopolitical interests I have,” Porter said. “It stopped being interesting to me to record country songs about being sad.”
Before leaving California for Tulsa, he wrote the songs for Communion in the Ashes, his political tendencies heightened in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.
“I spent a year, like a lot of people probably, depressed, afraid, trying to figure out. I’d just made a record about the political situation in our country, and then things got even worse,” Porter said. “I didn’t want to make the same record again. Out of that, I tried to find a more positive take.”
He recorded the album with a handful of longtime collaborators including engineer and drummer Peter Labberton, guitarist Jeremy Lyon, bassist Bevan Herbekian, keyboard player Jeff Hashfield, and vocalist Tracey Holland. Much of it was recorded in live band takes with few rehearsals, and that confidence and energy contribute to the calls to action in the lyrics.
“I wanted to make a record that communicated optimism. Even though things are so bad, we should try to do something about it,” Porter said. “Where the last record was really about the grief of losing that future I thought I would have, this record is kind of about me trying to find some belief system to replace that.”
“I will do no more hoping,” says the flier tucked under a windshield in downtown Tulsa. “I will dig the dirt myself.”
Protest records are nothing new, but Porter’s position is more that of a fatalistic pragmatist. It’s a uniquely modern perspective that could capture the heart of discerning nihilists everywhere.
“If I’m being 100 percent rational, the outlook is pretty bleak, but I’m choosing to have faith that we can do something,” Porter said. “That attitude guides my thinking about the world we’re currently living in, my political outlook. We have no choice. In my small way as a musician or just as a member of society, with whatever little microphone I have, I feel like it’s important for me to normalize the idea that we can do big things.”
“Our redemption song can topple walls, but first we must compose it,” Porter sings, before nearly all the sound drops out from behind him, save for one brave, lone guitar. “The dream is dead, and everybody knows it.”