It took me the 400 mile journey from my home in Fife to really embrace Frightened Rabbit. My ears’ yearning for more familiar accents and themes had driven me to explore the countless Scottish artists I had overlooked in my school days. Ballboy and The Delgados were two particular gems, and even the oft-derided Proclaimers, whom our generation will forever associate with the wanderings of a green ogre, won over my heart with their back catalogue of honest love songs and bespectacled nationalism.
Of all the new discoveries, however, it was Frightened Rabbit who really excited me. They were not entirely new to me – I remember distinctly how much I had enjoyed the frenetic energy of some of their records as a young teen – but for whatever reason only a handful of their songs were scattered among my playlists. It was only more recently, when I listened to 2008’s The Midnight Organ Flight in full, that I truly began to understood why so many of my friends couldn’t get enough of them.
Far rougher than the spellbinding vignettes of Belle and Sebastian, though not as crude as the bleak tales of Arab Strap, Scott Hutchison vocalised the things I could never: the pain, the self-loathing, the perils of intimacy. I use ‘vocalised’ here since it was not merely the words Hutchison sang which resonated so strongly, but also the way his voice squalled through them, as if he might not make it through to the other side of the chorus. His lyricism laid bare the insecurities that come with young love, his voice seeping with masculine vulnerability. ‘The Twist’ perfectly captured the pained numbness of anonymous hook-ups. “Whisper the wrong name,” sings Hutchison. “I don’t care and nor do my ears”. Yet he endures it all the same, because he needs the warmth of another – regardless of how fleeting it is, or how unworthy it makes him feel. It is only in ‘Keep Yourself Warm’ that he realises “it takes more than fucking someone you don’t know to keep warm”. But where does that leave the despondent and heartbroken? “If someone took a picture of us now, they’d need to be told/That we had ever clung and tied/A navy knot with arms at night” he wails in ‘Poke’, as he is left cold, lonely, and desperate. A brilliant heartbreak record, Midnight mirrors the fumblings of young love like no other.
Much of the appeal of Frightened Rabbit is how easy it is to empathise with their lyrics. Hutchison is not a narrative songwriter in the Jens Lekman sense, whose work is illuminated with intricate specificities. He does write songs about things that have happened to him, but in his lyrics the concrete details make way for more primal emotions. In this way, Midnight feels like it’s just as much about my heartache as it is Hutchison’s. It’s less lyrical escapism and more a cathartic reality, my voice rasping along as the music rushes and swells. Moreover, the concrete details he does give are ones which I can’t help but identify with, given that our memories share a similar setting. In the album’s penultimate song, Hutchison contemplates killing himself in the cold water of the Forth – the river whose Northern banks I call home.
For someone who could lay bare their soul on record, and provide expression to the mental demons of his listeners, it might seem surprising that Hutchison himself struggled to talk about his insecurities. “In a more standard, one-to-one conversation basis, they are quite uncomfortable. I think that’s what draws me to write about them, because unfortunately, for better or worse, I don’t really talk about them, and that’s what exacerbates the situation.” He regularly spoke about his hatred of “the idea that opening up is in any way emasculating”, and the difficulties men have in speaking frankly about their feelings. It can be too easy to spin narratives of an artist dealing with their depression through their work, of Hutchison’s songs being a purgative outlet for his troubled soul. While they might hold some truth, the realities of mental health cannot be captured by such simple mechanisms. Hutchison sometimes wished “he had a better mode of communication for when I’m feeling depressed” – a struggle he shared with millions, and one our society still desperately needs to address.
Everyone knows it’s shite being Scottish. We’ve built a cultural identity on deep disappointment, punctuated only by degrading debauchery. But Hutchison always had an eye on a brighter future, and a longing for the people and things he loved. Through bearing his deepest insecurities to the world, he helped thousands of grateful listeners first identify and then combat their demons, giving expression to the things they were incapable of saying. The lives he has touched with his music will forever be incalculable, but that does not mean his impact will go forgotten by those who found solace in his words.
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