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There is a sweet, quiet vulnerability in claiming to be a fan of Frightened Rabbit. An admission of affection for a band or artist is in many cases an admission of shared values and experiences. It can act as a veiled confession, a loaded statement—it can be us saying that we hear ourselves in the music. Saying we’re a fan might be easier than saying what we feel. This has overwhelmingly proven to be the case with those who love Frightened Rabbit, and the words and music written by the Scottish indie rock band’s late, loved frontman Scott Hutchison.
Since Hutchison’s body was identified by Scottish police late last week, there’s been a wave of support and public grief as listeners from around the world mourn his death and celebrate his life. Hutchison was venerated by an unflinchingly loyal and loving fanbase, one that regularly proclaimed, without shame or pause, that his words had either ‘saved their lives,’ or done something like it. On their face, these proclamations don’t say too much; perhaps purposefully, they’re open to interpretation. They don’t detail the circumstance that necessitated their saving. They never needed to, because Hutchison often did it for them.
With Frightened Rabbit, Scott Hutchison told us, time and again, to take care of ourselves. Perhaps he was telling it to himself, too. But his words, earnest and staggeringly honest, were open-ended—Hutchison was forthcoming about his struggles with depression, and while many of his lyrics almost certainly detailed those struggles, his banes on record remained nameless. This underwritten characteristic made his songs and his sympathies malleable.
Whether intentional or not, there is something intrinsically selfless in writing in such a way that your songs become useful tools to anyone who needs them. Hutchison’s songs, with their hurt, struggle, triumph, and ever-present wrestle against relapsing into darkness, are canvases onto which we could project ourselves and our trials. When I spoke with him in 2016, he seemed comforted by that idea. “That’s the best thing about it: you can step inside, and that becomes attached to your own experience.”
His writing was rich and gorgeously constructed, but it was also pragmatic and accessible. He was simply telling things as they were. Among the countless beautiful and enduring documents of his existence that Hutchison has left behind, the music he made with Frightened Rabbit remains as a resource centre for the lonesome and down.
Beginning with their scrappy, hyper debut record, 2007’s Sing The Greys, Hutchison campaigned for unfiltered dialogue and candid personal assessment. “What’s the blues when you’ve got the greys?” he sang cheekily on “The Greys.” It seemed that, for better or worse, as much as Hutchison feared darkness, he feared a beige, unfeeling existence. But it also functioned to implicitly address a severe manifestation of depression that numbs, and vacuums joy and color from a life. He articulated this cleverly, and Sing The Greys became an introduction to this tradition of brilliantly translating the mess that is the human experience into words, which became poetry, which became songs.
The following year brought the release of The Midnight Organ Fight, a record that the band celebrated with a 10th anniversary tour earlier this year. It was with this LP that Hutchison cemented a trademark tendency for what might popularly be deemed oversharing. But that’s exactly the sort of cruel, outdated stigmatization that Hutchison railed against for his entire career, both on and off the record. “Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms” was a stunning, unclothed indictment of the heartbroken male ego, while “The Twist” poetically rendered a clumsy hookup. These are details and narratives that, though so purely human and real, we have been trained to hide. Hutchison said them anyway. This was generous: he said the difficult things, and we could listen to them and feel comfort to hear our darknesses not just whispered in closed rooms, but bellowed in concert halls, proudly.
On the spritely, eclectic The Winter Of Mixed Drinks, Hutchison perfected a specific language of bruised optimism, where suffocating lows were punctuated by shards of light. “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” is a beautiful adventure towards independence, while “Not Miserable” is a simple and profound moment, where the titular state is a monumental achievement: “I’m not miserable now!” Hutchison declares proudly. It’s followed by, “Living In Color,” a pounding reclamation of joy.
Pedestrian Verse, with its manicured production and blooming climaxes, expanded on the tangled business of trying to be and feel good. The record is littered with conflict: “I’m just like all the rest of them/Sorry, selfish, trying to improve,” he promised on “Acts of Man.” “Would you come brighten my corner?” he pled on “The Woodpile.” On late album stomp “The Oil Slick,” he synthesized the central plight: “There is light, but there’s a tunnel to crawl through.”
Listening back, it becomes apparent that Hutchison rarely wrote a heavy song without the promise of redemption. He had a knack for threading hope through his suffering, of acknowledging that the two, unfortunately, always coexist. He reminded us time and again that our pain was legitimate, but also that we owed it to ourselves to feel the sun. He examined and discussed and destigmatized both extremes, and the many stops along the way. Often, he guided us through our own parallel journeys along this spectrum.
It has long seemed that an attachment to Hutchison was one of not just love and respect for his craft, but of personal necessity. Especially with mental illness, we often suffer alone, in silence, with varying degrees of shame or severity constricting our discussion and treatment of our ailment. Many of us cannot go so far as speaking publicly about our illness. Hutchison went that far for us. He sang, "I think I'll save suicide for another year," a brutal but resilient celebration of survival, so that we might not have to utter those words ourselves, for fear of disquieting those around us. Instead, we could listen and sing along, and feel it all the same, and claim those words, and that struggle, as our own. He gave his words to us, like patches to slap on a punctured tire. When we say we listened to and loved Frightened Rabbit, it is a statement that we valued vulnerability and healthy dialogue, and Scott Hutchison started it for us when we couldn’t.
It is challenging to listen to Frightened Rabbit now and not hear Hutchison detailing an illness that culminated in his death. For all his dry wit and self-deprecation, it is important to register that the pain he sang about was all too real. The fact of his body being discovered near the Forth Road Bridge is neither insignificant nor some prophecy. It is a terrible, heartbreaking endpoint of unrelenting mental illness. It is awful proof that, as Hutchison sang, “the dark can return with the flick of a switch.”
To listen to Frightened Rabbit has always been to hear that darkness exposed. Hutchison shone a light on the dark and sometimes frightful corners of his life. One might assume he did so in hopes of mending them. I just hope he knew that in doing so, he gave many of us the tools to peek at and mend our own.
Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer and musician with eight toes. He likes pho, boutique tube amps and The Weakerthans.
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