Scott Hutchison: An Appreciation

hutchison

“I hate when I feel like this, and I never…hated you.”

Looking back now, surveying the wreck, I can see, and concede, that I wasn’t quite ready to share four walls of any description with Scott Hutchison, and that my limited exposure to his work, intense and gratifying as it was – right up, at times, to the edge of transcendence – left me terribly ill-prepared to process the sad end to which he came. The self-effacing singer and oft-stunning lyricist of revered folk/indie rock thunderhead Frightened Rabbit died at some point last week, surely by his own hand, in the woods near a marina in his native Scotland, his body finally discovered at the end of a desperate, wide-ranging, communal search effort two days after he’d gone missing. If it appears I am unconcerned about the specifics in this case, you are correct. There’s nothing to be gained in any sense I value by trailing behind Scott Hutchison and somehow observing as he whittled away his life’s final hours in isolation. My heart’s broken enough already, thanks. That we don’t know – and can’t, and won’t – what was on his mind seems a bit odd in retrospect, as he was perhaps the single most emotionally accessible artist I ever encountered. When I say “accessible”, I don’t mean “vulnerable”, though heaven knows he had his moments, and that those moments often stretched into the near distance. I listened to the man chide himself repeatedly, berate himself, bargain with himself, cackle wildly and cry, smirk and sigh and shake his head, open the door to his soul a crack, then a sliver, then allow a stream of light to pierce the chapel din. I never quite knew what he thought of himself, in spite of it all, though it wasn’t for lack of evidence, or lack of trying.

All I ever thought him was brave, brave, brave. And, god, so talented.

I coincidentally read a pretty great interview with Hutchison last week, after the metaphorical clouds had already gathered but before the awful news broke. In it, he reminisced to Noisey.com about his band’s rich discography and even related his slightly controversial order of personal preference (SPOILER: we both have the same favorite FR record!). Twelve years is still long enough to forge a fairly significant legacy – Hendrix and Nirvana, among others, did it in roughly half the time – and Frightened Rabbit has grown over those years from fairly inauspicious beginnings into something far more than a mere “cult” band. Of course, the worst musical artist on Earth still has at least a handful of stubborn adherents who swear by each and every thing that he, she, or it does, and I am party to any number of good bands who inspire backflips and handstands (or the drunken equivalent) from their most ardent fans but only pleasant, nodding agreement from yours truly. Is their passion misplaced? No more than is my own for Frightened Rabbit. At the time of the interview, Hutchison was fresh off a tenth anniversary tour reliving his breakthrough second album The Midnight Organ Fight, that rare unspoken totem of connection between artist and audience so deep that the album all but demands he should undertake such a subjectively gaudy, self-indulgent, celebratory cliche, the very kind of attention-calling gesture a thoughtful, sadomasochistically humble introvert like Hutchison would instinctively eschew otherwise.

Far from rejecting the occasion, Hutchison in the interview instead professed enjoyment, or at least contentment, reflecting on it and the band’s history with clear eyes, even revealing in the process the existence of half a new album’s worth of written material, earmarked, with any luck, for development later this year. His bright, sober, honest appraisals and anecdotes afforded me a ray of unexpected hope for the future at a moment where its arrival was anything but certain. Hutchison has been among the reliable few interviewees these past several years whose words I make a consistent effort to seek out, whatever the venue or context. Less than a day later after I closed that browser window and allowed myself the beginnings of a smile, he was officially found, and officially gone. I spent Friday damn near beside myself and treading lightly, having somehow stammered my way through an inelegant, thrown together Facebook remembrance only to stall in the process of writing this larger one. I found I could think in naught but disconnected fragments, and barely speak at all, purposely avoiding the commotion as long-form memoriams like this one began trickling out. The collective mood of a corner of the music world felt crestfallen and more, numbed beyond shock. For nobody seemed incredibly surprised that Scott Hutchison was gone – given the circumstances, given his history, given the brutal truth and knowing intimacy with which he had always regarded and interacted with pain and anxiety, darkness, depression – just torn up to the core that someone of his depth and talent and promise possibly could be at all.

The Midnight Organ Fight was not my introduction to Hutchison’s work, as it was for countless others. I therefore came to wonderful songs like “Keep Yourself Warm”, “Backwards Walk”, and “The Modern Leper” almost secondhand, my impression already set, the marble already sculpted if not yet polished. I still remember what a revelation Frightened Rabbit’s fourth album, the bold and bracing Pedestrian Verse, was to me, however, its personal impact akin to receiving a bolt from the blue. The mood, the melodies, the musical digressions and flights of fancy…the frayed but tender arc in Scott’s voice – lilting, almost trembling, that is when it wasn’t yelping or howling at the moon – song after amazing song, and the lyrics…especially the lyrics, articulating the unsayable, about faith, family, home, self, dreams, despair, the black hole at the center of all of us and how, little by little, it might go about getting filled, however incompletely. I’m not a lyric guy traditionally, which, as I am most surely a word guy, I acknowledge is a little strange. Five songs in, and this new band (to me) was already one of my very favorites, an estimation that would only grow with time and zealous research. The richness and depth of so many parts of their uneven but affecting catalogue (as he admitted cheerfully in the Noisey interview) enveloped me at times, so much so that I thought at least I’d drown happily. Pedestrian Verse was Frightened Rabbit at its most confident and accomplished, my album of the year for 2013 in a walk, and one I’ve used as GPS on many dark nights of the soul since. It is, to me, also Rabbit at its most potent and affecting, though I at least know enough to avoid making any blanket declarations in that direction. Frightened Rabbit was a “most” kind of band, after all, and if Scott Hutchison could be at one moment your schoolyard mate joining in on a drinking song down the local pub and, at another, a lone candle flickering against the mocking draft at the bottom of a well, he didn’t see any incongruity to that existence, or that equation.

And now he’s gone.

I remember being close to tears the first time I ever heard “Poke”, Scott’s rough-hewn, 360-degree acoustic requiem for a romantic relationship now long since lost but still lingering like a phantom limb. It soon became my favorite Frightened Rabbit song. No such pretenses on my part last Friday, though, or today, or any time soon probably.

(The songs below contain sporadic offensive language and unflinching personal honesty)

“Poke” (taken from The Midnight Organ Fight [2008])
“You should look through some old photos / I adored you in every one of those / If someone took a picture of us now, they’d need to be told…”

An simple solo elegy that just about destroys me every time. Highly specific, yet close to universal. We’ve pretty much all been there. We just can’t all articulate the feeling so well.

“Swim Until You Can’t See Land” (taken from The Winter of Mixed Drinks [2010])
“And the water is taller than me / The land is a marker line / All I have is a body adrift in water, salt, and sky…”

An oddly sunny sing-along song about handling encroaching darkness from FR’s underrated “commercial” third album.

“Acts of Man” (taken from Pedestrian Verse [2013])
“I have never wanted more, to be your man / And build a house around you / But I am just like all the rest of them / Sorry, selfish, trying to improve…”

The first time I ever heard Scott’s voice and words, equally stark and stunning. From here, for me, there was really no looking back, just forward, and inward.

“Break” (taken from Painting of a Panic Attack [2016])
“Over the edge, I can’t stop myself / Off the ledge, throwing punches / If I bend, I might not break / I should think about giving in…”

My favorite track off Rabbit’s bittersweet swan song, and a deceptively upbeat hymn of/to uncertainty. Somber and self-flagellating, Painting of a Panic Attack just caught me flat-footed in general. In anyone else’s discography, songs like “Woke Up Hurting”, “Death Dream”, and “I Still Want to Be Here” – each more precise and haunting than its predecessor – might register as noteworthy and possibly even a warning, if not exactly a cry for help. In Scott’s, they amounted to yet another in depth dispatch from the front. I paid Painting appalling short shrift in 2016 because its callous refusal to be Pedestrian Verse Part 2 disappointed me so greatly. I know that whenever I decide to revisit it now will be like hearing with new ears. I wish I had known then how worthwhile the proper amount of attention would’ve been.

A not-yet-ex-girlfriend once asked me, as part of one of those stupid early internet email surveys, “what’s the worst thing in the world?”

I responded almost without thinking: “Feeling alone without being alone.”

Twenty-three years after Kurt Cobain’s untimely passing, we have come a proportional distance, if no further. Look around anyone now who perhaps indirectly suffers with success and wrestles the sort of depression that nudges firmly into suicidal ideation and, if you and they are lucky, what you will find are supporters and caregivers, family and friends and fans. Social media has made it more plausible to get a message through to someone who might not necessarily wish to hear, not to mention far easier for a community to coalesce and mobilize behind a person at risk in his or her hour of need. Whether the person knows them or not is almost immaterial, because they feel they know him. That’s what happened in Scott Hutchison’s case, and the diligence and unflagging spirit with which they endeavored to locate him says much more than I probably could about the sort of underlying connection he fostered with thousands upon thousands of people he didn’t know were his friends. It’s easy to say now, but had I somehow been out on the Scottish coast living out one of my travel dreams, I feel like I would have wanted to drop everything and join in the search. In the end, the people who loved him couldn’t quite pull Scott Hutchison back from the brink, though they gave it their everything, much as he always had in his music. Hutchison, through Frightened Rabbit, projected a warmth and strange nobility in its midst that functioned as something of a ward against personal darkness. He communed through song with people who knew anxiety and despair in their own lives, stood with you at the precipice, a steadying hand on your shoulder, as you both looked down. That’s incredibly valuable, and equally rare.

As my mind has slowly regained its full factory specs over the last several days, I’ve found it returning again and again to Cobain, who was the last artist I can recall whose death affected me in quite so visceral a manner. Both men died at an almost unfathomably young age, leaving behind bodies of work rich, bountiful, and frustratingly incomplete. Both men mined beauty from ugliness, wielding poet’s souls as a hedge against succumbing to the roiling negative spaces that lived inside them – with Hutchison’s words more homespun and lyrical, Cobain’s more abstract and oblique – until they could finally hold out no longer. Both men struck me as shooting stars, and left us at the peak of their creative powers and popularity. At the time of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, of course, Nirvana was the single biggest rock band on the planet, an honorific that likely no longer applies to anyone in the streaming age. Cynics might say that, by contrast, Frightened Rabbit’s identity as a critically beloved touring outfit used to packing small theaters afforded its shy and genuine frontman an extra decade in which to attempt in vain to figure things out. Without those years, we’d have had almost nothing on tape, and so I can only be grateful. I still remember holding a vigil of sorts for Cobain in my college dorm room, attended by my best friend and my roommate, during which we listened to every Nirvana song we could in close, ceaseless succession, as if trying to cauterize a still-flowing wound with the offending weapon itself. In contrast, to the degree I finally “got over” Scott Hutchison’s passing, I largely did so by listening to a steady diet of the music of his inspirations and fellow travelers – R.E.M., Against Me!, New Pornographers, Chrvrches, and so on – and allowing it, a minute at a time, to grant me permission to turn elsewhere for solace. And to find it. If I had treated Hutchison’s wake as I had the Nirvana-thon, my heart would’ve burst before very long at all. Scott could just have that effect on you.

Depression is real. Depression is serious.

Real friends are priceless, whether you’ve met them or not.

And you, sir, are already sorely missed.

Help one another. Make music that matters.

Rest in peace, rabbit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s