Album cover courtesy of Frightened Rabbit
Feature by Max Luebbers
cw: mention of suicide, mental illness
For many in the indie rock community, December is the month of Frightened Rabbit. Just over six months after frontman Scott Hutchison’s death, the band returned to the stage in their hometown of Glasgow last week for the Sleep in the Park Festival. Now under the name The Songs of Frightened Rabbit, they’ll be joined by fellow Scot-rocker James Graham from the Twilight Sad. To cap off half a year of tributes from all around the indie rock world, a concert of Scott’s songs was held at Rough Trade NYC earlier in December by friends and collaborators including Aaron Dessner (The National), Julien Baker, Kevin Devine, Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), and Craig Finn (The Hold Steady). Tickets were sold out in ten seconds.
Scott, who was open about his chronic depression in his music and in his interviews, went missing in Edinburgh on May 9th while the band was touring for the 10th anniversary of the widely acclaimed The Midnight Organ Fight. The next day he was found dead on the banks of the Firth of Forth near the Forth Road Bridge, a detail that fans and media have pored over since, because of its connection to some of the lyrics in his songs. Hutchison was a visible champion for mental health causes, openly supporting various charities and often speaking about his own deep depression and suicidal thoughts—despite his outward earnestness and humor. It’s his songwriting, though, that truly saved people. In the wake of his death, it is too easy to focus on the decade-long thread of subtext that has lead to it and find fascination in his suicide. Too easily, we latch on to the suffering of the artist as a litmus test of quality, and seek out the stories behind an artist or album that feature the deepest lineage of anguish and drama. We see this again and again, in the aftermath of Hutchison’s death as in the swirling reception of Mac Miller’s or Lil Peep’s death. It makes it easy to forget that behind the music, there is someone who lived that anguish. The circumstances of his death are ripe for analysis and his discography fits in too well with this narrative. But I think that we should also take time to think about his music as it stands—without any thought of how it ties into his death. The connections are certainly there, but he has also left us with valuable lessons about getting over trauma and acting with humility that shouldn’t be overshadowed.
Frightened Rabbit’s seminal sophomore album The Midnight Organ Fight is a necessary, gut-wrenching work that has become a touchstone for many in the indie rock scene, and this album is perhaps the main reason Hutchison’s death has so dramatically impacted the musical world. It is raucous yet endearing, clever yet unhinged. It is a devastating vacillation between undirected anger and self-deprecating vulnerability. It is a break-up album, but unlike most other albums within the “emotional” rock sphere, it isn’t objectifying, entitled, or whiny. It is quivering and unsure. Hutchison, refuting the self-indulgent trappings of the genre, tries to remain strong in the face of crippling self-defeatism. Consider bands like Brand New, and even American Football, that occupy some of the same space: they romanticize anguish, pitifulness, and sometimes spitefulness. But for Scott, the glorification of humanity’s repressed thoughts are instead traded for a disgust with his more animalistic nature. Lyrics that read violently and aggressively are delivered with a tone that hints that Hutchison is indeed repulsed by the things he wants to do, frightened by his own thoughts, warning all who listen.
The album opens with perhaps the group’s most notable song, “The Modern Leper.” It plays into one of the grand narratives of 90’s through 00’s rock – that the artist is broken and needs saving—but it flips the trope on its head and becomes a warning cry to potential lovers. What could have become a self-centered, entitled mess ends with the warming concern of a friend, and the reassurance that he’s not perfect but he’s trying: “You're not ill and I'm not dead. Doesn't that make us the perfect pair? You should sit with me and we'll start again, and you can tell me all about what you did today.” What makes the album so successful in its writing is its willingness to recognize the trappings of the genre, use them, and twist them into something constructive. There are men that feel this way—entitled, angry, lustful, and vengeful—and The Midnight Organ Fight depicts these feelings, but doesn’t condone them, critiques them but doesn’t lecture. Hutchison transforms a fascination for the darkest desires of masculinity, into an example for all, rather than making an alienating damnation. The road of revenge sex, and heavy drinking, and spiteful self-destruction has been traveled, and it's not a good look.
What is so often overlooked in the light of Hutchison's recent passing is his often humorous view of the world. The inner demons are broken up by moments of levity and humor that also seem born out of the mind of someone who has been utterly broken. “I Feel Better” features the sassiness of a typical I’m-so-over-you-fuck-off kind of track, finishing the chorus with a rousing shout of “This is the last song I’ll write about you.” 12 more songs remain in the album, all about “you.” It's a hilarious use of context that is at the same time a form of catharsis and a criticism of these sorts of break-up tracks, because the mere act of writing a song to say how done you are is in and of itself an admission of lingering attachment.
Hutchison has an ability to turn what originally seemed like grim and dire circumstances into lessons and positive messages we can all learn from. “Heads Roll Off” is about getting back up again after trauma, even if it means getting beaten back down—an indication of Hutchison’s ever-present grounded positivity. “Floating in the Forth,” now the band’s most infamous song, ends with Hutchison deciding that now, even when he’s reached his lowest low, is not the time to die. Hutchison has journeyed out to find the beauty in despair, only to find something to live for. Even “Poke” which on the surface seems to be the most self-indulgent song of The Midnight Organ Fight, turns out to be a cathartic and resigned track about moving on after a failed relationship, without harboring any self-destructive ill will. The track is certainly nostalgic, dealing with going through old photos and seeing new partners, but it's a reserved sadness. “Poke” is a reference to the way Hutchison tries to scratch at his eyes to make himself cry, and by the end of the song this reminiscing has worked, but he moves on saying, “But I hate when I feel like this, and I never hated you.” It's a testament to Hutchison's writing ability, that he could turn a mopey “lost love” song into a poignant, self-affirming track about the passage of time and how it dulls old memories.
“Tiny Changes,” the tribute concert in NYC last week, takes its name from “Heads Roll Off,” where Hutchison closes the track desperately ensuring that:
When my blood stops, someone else's will not
When my head rolls off, someone else's will turn
You can mark my words,
I'll make tiny changes to earth.
And while his changes may be tiny, they have built a devoted fan base who connects with his honesty and realistic optimism. This month, Hutchison lives on in his songs, as he is honored by fans and some of the most notable names in rock as an important figure for mental health awareness. He also lives on in the indie scene in general, as one of the greatest songwriters of a generation.