Songs of loss and hope and other things [Frightened Rabbit]

I submitted this to an anthology about Frightened Rabbit and they didn’t want it so here it is

I cried more when I heard Scott Hutchison had died than I did at my own father’s funeral. 

I often think on that. Some of the thoughts are perhaps prosaic or rather simple, the impact of a musician on someones life or the power of music to inspire and provoke (Poke?) emotions. But I consider the specific nature of what Scott said and did and sung about and the resonance that had for so many people. 

When I first heard Frightened Rabbit I was living in a flat with a girlfriend in another relationship about to end. Swim Until You Can’t See Land came on the TV. The resonant, egg shell fragile, slow melodic riff from the start, the slow build to the chorus, and then what I would later learn was the Frightened Rabbit modus vivendi. Crafting a song with an upbeat tempo juxtaposed to the story of a man swimming out to sea to escape the complications of his life. 

What spoke to me most was the fragile masculinity of the song. That doesn’t mean in the usual sense of a weak ego protected by constant bravado intended to compensate for crushing insecurity. It was fragile in the sense of being unsure, wrong footed, of being inadequately placed in the world of being “a version of man built to collapse in crumb”. This wasn’t the swaggering macho rock of other British rock bands like Kasabian or Queens of the Stone Age who were so chart dominant at the time. I felt this was a deliberately vulnerable, orchestral intervention into the world. A modernist melancholia. Scott had something to say, about the machinery of pain and being in a world seemingly filled with problems. 

Some inevitably find it tempting to dismiss bands like Frightened Rabbit as just dour Scot rock. But to do so would be a mistake. Scott’s music in particular elevated the genre to a whole new level. It wasn’t blithe or cynical, or merely ‘depressing’ music. It was not generic, it was deeply personal. And because it was personal it felt oddly universal because it spoke to something inside you that you also felt. 

I think about how I was so desperately and insanely in love with someone, at that moment The Woodpile spoke to me as a song about that crazed energy and the relentless desire to connect. It wasn’t really a love song, more a song about feeling that life was collapsing in on you but someone could come find you. Both the lyrics and the musical arrangement are in harmony, the power of the surging chorus, one of Frightened Rabbits loudest songs and the attempt at emotional intimacy – who wouldn’t like to speak in secret tongues with a lover? We attended an event in London, an evening interactive performance about love where 20 couples gathered and we played snippets of songs that meant something to us and considering what it meant to be in love. They played The Woodpile second, a much more raucous song than many of the others that were effectively ballads or straightforward songs about being in love. But being in love is rarely straight forward. And Scott knew that and could articulate it better than most. 

This is why the cover of The Waterboy’s 1985 song The Whole of the Moon which they performed for BBC’s Scotland Hogmanay Show in 2012 is so richly anthemic. A song about loving someone better than you, admiring the expansive nature of their being, knowing you probably aren’t good enough for them but you adore them anyway. They have an insight into things beyond your horizon. That you only spoke about wings whilst they flew. How could Scott not love that song? The sentiment speaks directly to the entire ethos and purpose of Frightened Rabbit. It is a love song in the most wistful way imaginable.  Likewise their cover of Springsteen’s Streets of Philadelphia – the despair of losing friends and loved ones to a disease with no cure, abandoned by society and cursed by the majority. I loved the song as a kid and it was one of the first I learned to play on the guitar back when I had time for that kind of thing.

But for all of that death and its possibilities was an ongoing theme for the band. Death features in the title of several songs. Bleeding, blood, diseases, skulls are regular motifs. The collapse of the body features prominently, most notably in The Modern Leper, a song about a man literally falling apart with self loathing. The title of the breakthrough album transforms sex from pleasure into a Midnight Organ Fight, a struggle of two souls alone in the world trying to connect through the visceral encounter of flesh, but is it enough? The inevitable feeling of regret after a fight, after “fucking someone you don’t know to keep warm”?

Given all the signs he gave us it is riven through with tragic pathos that someone with Scott’s considered soul would write a song about how they might end their own life. When I first heard Floating in the Forth it struck me as utterly poignant. All the feelings concentrated into such intensity, the pressing unbearable weight of life on a gentle soul tempered by the knowledge that permanent escape is always a possibility. But we all make a judgement about whether there is something keeping us here, at least for another year. So many of us have struggled with episodes of mental health collapse, of intense sadness, self harm, suicidal feelings – the call of the void. But Scott sung about it in a way that made sense. The lingering feeling that perhaps although you chose to live, you might only be delaying what feels inevitable. His conclusion, “I think I’ll save suicide for another year” (or maybe only another day?) perfectly encapsulated that pensive feeling. And of course we now know that Scott was singing perhaps his most personal song, the one that he had himself considered as a way out from pain. The feeling of going to the Forth Road Bridge and finding an ending. It breaks me up just to think about it.

It is perhaps the saddest thing of all that a man who inspired so much in others, who reached out with his music and touched so many lives for the better still considered his own life dispensable, that in his final hours he couldn’t stay with us. One of his final messages on social media to “hug your loved ones” struck me as something different from the message of his songs. His songs were personal (whilst collectively speaking of the human experience) but rarely talked about finding solace in others. They were about the inner journey, the path inside your own heart, the wilderness thicket of emotional consequence that only you can navigate. They were about finding strength inside yourself, that there was light but there was your own tunnel to crawl through to get there. Perhaps hugging your loved ones and knowing you can love and be loved in return is the missing part, that it is possible to be vulnerable but still happy.  

So around the 8th May every year I sit with a bottle of whisky and I watch Frightened Rabbit music videos on the TV. I prefer to do it on my own because it is about the feelings that I have that are stirred within me – I suppose the feeling of loss can be intensely selfish at times. Occasionally I might take a detour into other Scottish rock bands with a similar sound – I like to stay on theme. It astounded me after Scott died and so many of musicians and bands that loved him and his music did cover songs. They were all artists that were my favourite bands too. The National, Death Cab for Cutie, Biffy Clyro, The Twilight Sad, Craig Finn from the Hold Steady. The sounds of a community of musicians making similar music, of exploring the myriad complex feelings that life thrusts upon us and into us and we live through them. It felt like a spirit living on in the scales and chords of contemporaries. 

Listening to Scott’s songs again helps make the connection. Hearing that music provided a channel, a way to understand. A place to be. It is bittersweet, that place. It is the warmth of a home even though the bricks are sculpted from anxiety, the roof is made of depression. Manhood feels like a wreckage but perhaps a salvageable one. Perhaps. It is the crisis of a gender fraught with problems. Hutchison could articulate in song what it felt like to let down people you loved, to be less than you should be. The Oil Slick, Acts of Man, Keep Yourself Warm (It takes more than fucking someone you don’t know, to keep warm), Late March Death March… too many songs to mention that deal with the fear that you cannot escape the grip of a society drenched in toxic masculinity. Are you strong enough to be a better man? To truly care for others beyond the selfish horizon of being male. Acts of Man in particular stands out – a damning list of all the terrible ways that men can behave, all the damage they can cause to women, to other men, to themselves. That is why I cried when Scott died, I felt like one of the few men who understood that and could communicate it wasn’t with us any more. I felt in a sense I had learnt more from his music than any other man in my life. 

But there was beauty in all those songs. Naturally so many plumbed the depths of sorrow and dwelt in the comfort of being sad and yet the ending of the song often shone a ray of light into the gloom. A precious moment of hope amid the madness. Acts of Man concludes with the plea that whilst you might be just like all the rest of them you are sorry, selfish, trying to improve. State Hospital details the tragic life of a woman suffering a cursed life of disappointments and domestic violence nevertheless concludes that “if blood is thicker than concrete, all is not lost.” Even The Modern Leper ends with a promising note, that he isn’t dead yet and perhaps there is still the possibility of starting all over again “You should sit with me and we’ll start again”. 

The fan favourite Heads Roll Off concludes with the sanguine commitment that “while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth”. It isn’t a surprise that this lyric has been seized upon to encapsulate a kind of mission statement for what the band was about and how the fans can grapple with the legacy of the music. In our own small way try grapple with the demons and whilst we know you can never truly slay them, you can get the better of them and be a better human for others. Even a Modern Leper can start again. These are the points to dwell on, to think over and ultimately to sing out loud. After all we need not just to cling to those points of hope but to run to them, embrace them. That is what music does, you feel the roller coaster of emotions, the ups and downs of it all, but as you’re gathering speed you want know it’s going to be ok. Scott opined that he couldn’t write a love song but he contributed something more useful reminding us “there’s still hope so I think we’ll be fine, in these disastrous times, disastrous times”. 

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Simon H

Writer, socialist, bit part player in the end of the world drama

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