Release Date: April 14, 2008
Label: Fat Cat Records
This may well be the most difficult album review I’ve ever written. Not because the music is hard to appraise (I’ll tell you straightaway, The Midnight Organ Fight is a brilliant album), but because of how life can sometimes imitate art. When I started writing this, Scott Hutchison, lead singer and songwriter of the Scottish band, Frightened Rabbit, was missing. He had sent two troubling tweets, left his phone in his Queensferry hotel room, and disappeared, the last record of him being a grainy CCTV still from the lobby. A few days later, his body was found in the Firth of Forth.
When I first heard about Scott’s disappearance, I was sitting at work. The Colorado sun was bright and a warm breeze came through the window, but all I could picture was the haar rolling in off the North Sea, obliterating Edinburgh. To chase the fog away, I managed a hopeful act of solidarity: a chronological listen-through of the entire Frightened Rabbit catalogue (as well as Scott’s solo Owl John record, and the new Mastersystem album). The songs, and Scott’s lyrics, rang in my head all day. In fact, I had trouble sleeping that night as his phrasing, and its geographic specificity, echoed in my mind.
And really, it’s the lyrics of The Midnight Organ Fight that first gripped me back in 2008. Despite it being Frightened Rabbit’s sophomore effort, the album was my, and many people’s, introduction to the band. It relates the tale of a tortured relationship–the highs, the lows, and the awkward in-betweens–in a characteristically Scottish deadpan. Which is not to say that the lyrics lack emotion (it’s there in droves), just that heart-on-sleeve moments are often paired with wry observations. Heartache goes down easier with a bit of humor. What’s more, that humor lends an agency-generating defiance to otherwise bleak songs. From “Poke”:
“Why won’t our love keel over as it chokes on a bone?
And we can mourn its passing and then bury it in snow
Or should we kick its cunt in and watch as it dies from bleeding?”
Clearly, there is sadness in the first question. The narrator describes a struggling love, but one still deserving the tenderness and respect of a proper burial. However, that sentiment is cleverly undercut by the casual vulgarity of the second question. This flippant juxtaposition imbues the narrator with agency–yes, the lovers could wait until their relationship peters out, or they could take a more active role in its dissolution. Unexpected lyrical turns like these are a hallmark of Scott Hutchison’s work. He uses humor to remind the listener that no matter how bleak things might seem, there is always a path forward.
The occasional injections of humor are welcome because the lyrical content would otherwise be pretty grim. From “Floating in the Forth”:
“I picture this corpse on the M8 hearse
and I have found a way to sleep
On a rolled up coat against the window
with the strobe
of the sun and the life I’ve led”
To be sure, there is a stark beauty in the description of the aftermath of an imagined suicide, but it can’t erase the fact (particularly now) that we know this is not just some character in a song contemplating jumping off a bridge, but a real-life struggle that Scott faced. Even before his death, there was always something about his lyrical precision and the delivery that let the listener know the words were honest ones.
That sense of honesty is amplified by the lyrics’ cohesion and consistency across Frightened Rabbit’s oeuvre. The band’s very first album, Sing the Greys, opens with a song about “the greys”–one of Scott’s many codewords for depression. Then, on The Midnight Organ Fight, “the greys” reappear in the song “I Feel Better”:
“I’ll stow away my greys
In a padlocked case and in a padlocked room
Only to be released
When I sing all the songs I wrote about you”
They appear again in “Not Miserable” from follow-up album, The Winter of Mixed Drinks: “I am free of from disease no greys, no liver-spots, most of the misery’s gone.” For me, this self-referentialism, where songs are brought into conversation with one another, is part of what makes Scott’s songwriting so special. All too often, songwriters write songs and then abandon the metaphors they labored to create. In this way, a song becomes nothing more than a costume to slip into, almost as if the past is a source of shame. In contrast, Scott’s work is all part of one big tapestry. Investing in listening to one album pays dividends on others. “The greys” are just one example of the interconnection.
Though I’ve focused on the lyrics up to this point, the songs are equally compelling in the music department. Strong melodies; jittering, jangling arrangements that borrow from country as easily as they do pop; emotive vocal delivery; and Scott’s endearing Scottish accent shining through all the while. There are quiet moments and swelling anthems, songs that will make you want to dance and songs that will have you singing out curse-words in falsetto at the top of your lungs. The exhilaration that comes in those moments is, for me, what Frightened Rabbit’s music is all about–its ultimately about empowerment, about triumph over adversity. And this is why The Midnight Organ Fight, despite all that has happened, will have staying power. As I’ve listened back, one refrain in particular sticks with me:
“When it’s all gone
Something carries on
And it’s not morbid at all
Just when nature’s had enough of you
When my blood stops
Someone else’s will have not
When my head rolls off
Someone else’s will turn
And while I’m alive
I’ll make tiny changes to earth”
There have been lots of memorials written about Scott in the days since his death. This review is just another for that collection–thoughts from a fan who will dearly miss the opportunity to hear more from a fantastic songwriter. Several people have called attention to the “tiny changes” line as a fitting legacy for Scott, describing how tiny changes can add up to a meaningful life. But the lines that strike me most come at the beginning–the notion that something carries on even after the end, that our lives reverberate beyond our passing. There’s comfort in knowing that though Scott Hutchison may be gone, he’ll live on in his music. Godspeed to all of the frightened rabbits out there.