Count on Scott Hutchinson to never hold anything back.
Honesty is, in a lot of ways, what makes great lyricism great, and Hutchinson has honesty and literacy to spare. It’s what makes the Frightened Rabbit frontman a bit of an unsung songwriting hero; his poetry can be uncomfortable at times, but the lengths dude is willing to go to in service of eviscerating himself are pretty staggering. “I am that dickhead in the kitchen, giving wine to your best girl’s glass,” he sings in the opening seconds of Frightened Rabbit’s latest, Pedestrian Verse. As the ballad pans out, and reveals the full scope of Hutchinson’s whiskey-soaked falsetto observations — the track, “Acts of Man”, examines men who do terrible things, floridly describing the date rapes, bar brawls, and unfulfilled promises men the world ’round commit from force of habit — it becomes quite clear that Hutchinson is no more critical of anyone else than he is of himself. “I am just like all the rest of them, sorry, selfish, trying to improve,” he sings, unwilling to put himself on a pedestal. It may be the most poetically inward turn of phrase a singer-songwriter has unleashed since Sufjan Stevens compared himself to a certain serial killer in the heart-stopping “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”, and on Pedestrian Verse, Hutchinson has no intentions of letting up.
And it’s not like he should at this point. There’s a certain cult of misery associated with Frightened Rabbit — their breakthrough, 2008’s The Midnight Organ Fight, spilled a lot of ink on broken relationships, instigated by a particularly nasty breakup Hutchinson endured, and it’s pointed and broken enough to send Adele running for the hills — and it’s not entirely unearned, given Hutchinson’s predilections for self-immolation and churning heartbreak. At this point, one wonders if a non-miserable Frightened Rabbit would even be worth listening to. I mean, does anybody want to hear a sprightly, jangly Damien Rice record?
Well, that’s almost unfair. Frightened Rabbit are perhaps most notable for Hutchinson’s stunning lyrical acumen, but it would all be for naught if the music were impenetrable. But The Midnight Organ Fight, a collection of heartbreaking lyrical conceits, is a collection of shambling mock-Americana whose tight melodic structure allows the pain in in the first place; the misery would all be for naught if the music didn’t draw the listener in. The contrast between music and lyric is pretty standard in indie-rock at this point, going back to indie’s patron saint, Elvis Costello, who laid thick layers of dense lyrical self-examination over ebullient keyboards and smashing drums. Rule one, be tuneful.
And Pedestrian Verse is nothing if not tuneful. Once again, these guys’ melodic sense trumps all; “Housing (In)” and “Housing (Out)” are brief interludes, but they get in, establish a killer melody, and dash off into the night with all the whirlwind creativity of a Guided By Voices record. “Backyard Skulls” builds an ace metaphor out of the morbid notion of buried skeletons in the backyard, and that’s swell, but it’s also got an insanely addictive chorus melody. The martial, propulsive “Late March, Death March” is as kinetic as anthemic as anything they’ve ever recorded; lead single “The Woodpile” yearns for romantic fulfillment in a sense, but pines for the spark to ignite the flame. (“Come and brighten my corners,” Hutchinson sings; coincidence, or subtle Pavement shout-out?)
And then there’s “Nitrous Gas”. Were it not for Midnight Organ Fight, which layered classic upon indisputable classic with astonishing tenacity, this just might be Frightened Rabbit’s legacy; after a career of tuneful misery, Hutchinson lays into himself and his inability to grasp happiness in this stark, poignant pastoral. The chorale of background vocals rise and fall with hair-raising accuracy; Hutchinson sings, “leave the acute warm heartedness, go where the joyless bastard lives… he’s dying to bring you down with him.” It’s perhaps the most confessional of confessionals: a jaw-dropping display of self-flagellating honesty, indicating that Hutchinson is the very joyless bastard he sings about, perversely feeding off the creative high his misery grants him. The singer plays nothing close to the vest; all cards are on the table, and when Hutchinson turns inward, the results are often nakedly fascinating.
It’s a remarkably accomplished, delicately textured record to boot. The melodies and tempoes are recognizably Frightened Rabbit’s brand of indie-rock, but it’s a busier record than their earlier ones; the guitars are angular and spindly without sacrificing melody, the drums crest the shore with climactic abandon, keyboards burble and pulsate beneath frenetic compositions. (Those keyboards on “Backyard Skulls”: a marvel to behold. Somehow they fit perfectly.)
Pedestrian Verse deftly navigates some slow patches, to be sure. The melodies can take a few listens to creep up on you. Still, it’s another gem in Frightened Rabbit’s crown, an improvement on their last record, The Winter of Mixed Drinks (which, in retrospect, may have suffered from having to follow the stunning Midnight Organ Fright), and a fully-realized album-length statement. When Hutchinson sings on the album’s closing track “only an idiot would swim through the shit I write”, it crystallizes his self-excoriating manifesto with one on-the-nose one-liner; those idiotic enough to brave Hutchinson’s stormy, choppy ocean of lyricism will find themselves rewarded.