Essential: Frightened Rabbit – The Work

There are perhaps few modern day songwriters who over five albums – and a handful of EPs – would warrant the compilation of a book of their collected lyrics. Scott Hutchison is certainly amongst this tiny minority. This month, his band, Frightened Rabbit, is releasing The Work – a carefully curated book of lyrics and illustrations by their late front man.

Without a hint of hyperbole, Hutchison is one of the finest lyricists and songwriters of recent years, whose influence will only continue to grow on the back of this book. To mark its release, three of our writers picked one of their favourite tracks and attempted to put into words why it means so much to them. One theme that runs across all is the sense of relatable comfort with which Hutchison was able to infuse into his songs. They were often raw to the point of laying like open wounds, but it only made them all the more real. His words are also startling and funny, his quick wit tussling with his keen eye for the heartbreaking levellers that unite us.

An artist who gave so much, he is a titan of Scottish songwriting, whose words are etched on the ventricles of those who hold them close. A smile in the distance, and a nudge to a better tomorrow, hope was never far beneath the surface of his wanderings. His words and songs are saviours. They are the light he left on to illuminate the darkest of rooms.

Poke – chosen by Jo Higgs

For me, Poke often comes to embody the impressive straddling of the divide between sadness and resilience that The Midnight Organ Fight so daintily wanders. Scott Hutchison tackles and tangles with his own issues as a point of familiarity as he addresses the undeniably crushing end to a wonderful relationship, but remains resolutely and kindly consulate for both himself, the addressee and even the listener.

There’s a constant touching throughout the track. This physical engagement obviously isn’t imparted upon the listener themselves, but something about it can feel like a gentle nudge, just to check in and make sure we’re okay. The touch, whether it’s of lips or arms, or it’s the act of poking, pulling or dragging, or even the joint keeling over and consequent choking of a shared love, gradually serves to stand as the only functional act of intimacy between increasingly distanced lovers succumbing to the most painful of pains: desensitisation.

poke at my iris / why can’t I cry about this?’

The opening line calmly clarifies this desensitised struggle. It’s a curious exposition that quite magically establishes both real intimacy that one could be so close as to poke an iris, and a strife to qualify that intimacy with the emotional accessibility it deserves.

Hutchison panders to the addressee, begging that no matter the ending it’s not forgotten that there’s comfort taken in the good times. He tries to stay strong but more so than any other song on the album there’s a tremulous quiver in each and every line: a nakedness that just isn’t musically viable across the fuller arrangements of most tracks. His catching throat gives way enough to let him lay bare a list of shortcomings, before concluding that perhaps the kind thing to do is let it all die. But is a slow death humane?

Or should we kick its cunt in / and watch as it dies from bleeding?’

The use of the ‘c’ word could signify a number of things, and perhaps many at once. The expletive, often used as a casual and affectionate term in Scotland, is naturalised within the song, as if it doesn’t carry more offence than any other word. But it’s also a word that even as a friendly term would rarely be employed without a deep understanding of its audience, so as to not cause upset. There is still trust and love between Hutchison and the addressee, enough to be comfortable with intimate language. Ultimately it’s the ambiguity of the word that holds its power in this context: it calls to the adage that you can only truly hate someone if you’ve truly loved someone, but in this case it isn’t the person so much as the painfully strung-out love that is shared.

The strangest aspect of Poke for me is that while I quickly understood the overarching lyrical narrative, or at least my own interpretation of it, I struggled to connect different parts. It’s as if lines within the song have become distanced from each other, not by proximity of meaning or by musical interludes but by some other magic making me consider each fragment as its own wee morsel. It took until this write up for me to fit together the pieces of the jigsaw that had welcomely goaded my mind for so many years. This feels a holistic and wholesome revelation, to begin to understand the sum of so many wonderful parts, but honestly, there’s magic bursting at the seams of every line of this song and sometimes individual consideration can be just as fruitful.

And I never hated you’

The final line is as crippling as they come, a truth so many have wished to avoid at some point or another. An ending needn’t be a suggestion of dwindling care. Clearly this is within a romantic context, but given the albums frequently self-reflective tone, it can’t help but echo out among delicate backing vocals as an indictment of self-care so tricky to sincerely attain.

Fuck This Place chosen by Craig Howieson

I now find it almost impossible to untangle the point at which Scott Hutchison’s lyrics entered and subsequently became embedded in my life. They swim so close to the surface of my consciousness that it is hard to fathom that they were in fact once ‘new’ to me. It is the mark of a truly special songwriter when their story becomes your own, not because they are the same, but because they contain the same universal truths you yourself have come face to face with, and reassure you that someone, somewhere has felt a similar way about the world around them.

Fuck This Place, found quietly nestling as the second track of 2011s A Frightened Rabbit EP, is not one of the band’s best known songs. In fact, it is unlikely to trouble many fans’ list of favourites from the group. But, for me, it embodies everything that is pure and special about Hutchison’s writing. Musically, the song wavers in like a struck match straining for oxygen, with little more than a strummed guitar and Hutchison’s lonesome voice. But as the rattle of snare from some far off battlefield is joined by an ever expanding cast of brass, the song begins to morph, and before long is ablaze in a forlorn glory reminiscent of The National. It was more than a hint at the direction they would move into with Dessner behind the production desk for Painting of A Panic Attack.

Sung as a duet with Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell, Fuck This Place could be easily described as a love song. Yet, as beautifully as their voices lie side by side, for me, the meaning of the track goes far deeper. It is a song of alienation and disorientation. A dark of the night tale, where oblivion is sought but never captured, and we find ourselves as emotionally and physically displaced as ever. As the two sing in unison ‘I don’t know these buildings, I think I am lost,’ Hutchison, in his perfect summation of a drunken stumble through the streets of Glasgow, pokes the listener in the rib cage, to jolt them back to their own experience with being hopelessly lost.

There are always two sides to Hutchison’s coin though: a docking leaf for every grasp of the nettle, and by the time the track’s chorus returns, so too does another line of lyrics ‘would you, would you, would you be good enough to take me home?’ An anguished plea, a recognition of a need for help, or simply a search for comfort, it is yet another example of the unvarnished honesty with which Hutchison wrote. This line does not ring out like the words of one lover to another, it is far more basic than that. This is a request on the most human of levels, soul to soul, looking for a guide through the night. And as Hutchison’s and Campbell’s voices again soar as one, it’s impossible not to hear the implied ‘yes’ from somewhere not too far away to the question posed.

Hutchison’s words are a source of hope for those without it. A cagoule for dreich days. A boulder to rest against the door to keep the darkest of demons at bay. They will never be ‘new’ to me again, but they will never be forgotten.

I Wish I Was Sober – chosen by Joseph Purcell

Choosing your favourite track by an artist is always difficult. I don’t think I’d be alone in suggesting our moods often determine the records that we reach for. Whether that’s to channel our frustrations or keep us going on a happy euphoric curve, the vast differences in the moments we encounter each day make it hard to find just one.

Yet, when asked to do this write up on a most cherished Frightened Rabbit track, I was immediately drawn to I Wish I Was Sober. I’m not sure if this is because I personally treasure the record that it is from, Painting of a Panic Attack and often feel it’s overlooked, or for some other reason. But for me, it is the perfect snapshot of Scott Hutchison’s talents, and supplemented by Aaron Dessner’s production it feels like three minutes of absolute perfection.

In its composition, I Wish I Was Sober expands and contracts in majestic unison with Hutchison’s warming accent, as if listening into the dialogue of a comforting friend. Lyrically from the outset it is a tale of Hutchison’s struggle with alcohol, and detailing that despite the best intentions it had become uncontrollable and destructive to those closest.

The opening words read as the beginning of painfully bare inner dialogue, ‘Fall prey to the blizzard head / I wrap my hand around the glass again / we all thought that I might change as I got older.’ The description of the struggle epitomises its author’s finest talent, as he unabashedly weaves his words in such a way that your mind is forced to create a visual, no matter how gruesome or imposing that may be.

The crescendo falls on the unanswered cries, ‘Forgive me, I can’t speak straight / forgive me, I can’t / forgive me it’s far too late’ with vulnerability and struggle laid bare for all to witness. The depression and the destruction with which Hutchison battled, feel particularly evident at this moment, encapsulated by the rueful utterances ‘Come and shake me till I’m dry, I wish that I was sober.’

Throughout, Hutchison is enveloped in the struggle of self-loathing, yet still reaches out to speak. I personally don’t relate to the struggle with alcohol that he describes, yet feel like I totally understand what he is saying, how words are transferable to our own existence whatever our own personal situation might be. We all understand the desire to escape and forget about pain; the images he paints – ‘fell down and nothing bled, wrapped in cotton alcohol again,’ – burn deeply every time I hear it. That longing to get away and feel safe, be cushioned from the reality of aspects of life with which we all battle: relationships, addiction, confidence. Hutchison helped with those conflicts – the ones that we often keep to ourselves through fear of judgement or shame. To have someone who brings comfort through their art, and whose songs become almost reassuring that you aren’t alone in your struggles, is something to treasure, and Hutchinson’s writing is something we can hold close forever.

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