Great pain does not beget great art; trauma won’t always lead to inspiration, nor internal conflict to expression. These notions that to be an artist of notice and worth you must suffer is tired, prone to suggesting self-destruction to those in pursuit of creative endeavors. They’re not mutually exclusive but, as we’ve all sadly seen in the past, sometimes the ideas do intertwine. I think what allowed fans to be so gob smacked by the loss of Scott Hutchison was that for so long he’d worn that heartache on his sleeve, and had done so with humility and compassion.
Hutchison’s pain – at least, in the ears of the listener – wasn’t so much a product for sale but a means to connection. We’re all a little lonely at the edge of a scream sometimes, many of us are sad, some hopeless and scared, some desperately floating until we can’t see the land as tumbling waves of confusion and indecision rain overhead. Great, true art, infuses its lyricism with honesty and musicality with vulnerability. A great artist can keep themselves at an arm’s length, be more pop-idol deity than best friend, but the ones that we don’t so much worship but relate to – the ones who make our hearts ache in tandem, our eyes water and spirits soar are those who are offering a window into their soul as a place of recluse. Frightened Rabbit – as demonstrated both in their albums and especially their live performances – viewed their music as a communion of like minded or empathetic souls and because of it, because of that ebbing sense of unity that set venues buzzing with high octane level emotions, the words punched harder, swifter and with greater potency because they left a searing, indelible mark.
In particular, their sophomore album, The Midnight Organ Fight sung of volatile loneliness, life’s cyclical paths and the futility in looking to faith to better oneself when instead you might spend your time and energy on the small details of life to leave something greater in your stead, other than thoughts, ideas and hushed prayers. It’s humanism masked as apathy, as Hutchison sings:
“When my blood stops, someone else’s will not/When my head rolls off, someone else’s will turn/And while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth.”
Life moves on and just because someone passes away it doesn’t mean that time stands still – the world doesn’t wait for you to grieve or cope with loved ones caught in the untidiness of grieving. We lose, and we look to grapple with that loss by trying to find the silver linings of that person’s existence and what they left behind and, as so happens in the too many tragic cases where artists loose to inner demons, they leave a community of those still standing with their words tattooed in their memory. The road of remembrance for Hutchison has been a long one – and with Tiny Changes: A Celebration of Frightened Rabbit’s ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’ fans get a sense of just how many lives their music has touched as every taste of genre is explored with tribute covers. And that title of “Tiny Changes” is right as these aren’t so much rewriting of their songs – instead reimagined. They’re infused with such obvious, contemplative compassion and remembrance that at moments it’s easy to be lost in how the words and voices blend into something not so unfamiliar to Hutchison’s own tone.
It’s amazing what they’re able to do with words that could easily be lost in helpless mourning, as the anger in the album, the themes of lost love and sense of self permeates throughout. In particular, “Keep Yourself Warm” cuts through any warmth with biting lyrics and powerful instrumentals that all but drown the vocals.
“I’m drunk, I’m drunk/And you’re probably on pills/If we both got the same diseases/It’s irrelevant, girl/And the room fills with steam/Oh, evaporates, disappears/My point of entry is the same way that I’ll leave.”
And still, Death Cab for Cutie lead singer Benjamin Gibbard utilizes his delicate vocals for something eering on the side of wistful, rather than fury, with a song that drips with longing, sung as if it were written by an older, wiser Hutchison. Similarly, “The Modern Leper” is given dual treatment on the album and only one takes it into new territory. Biffy Clyro dives into the song with the same frantic energy as Hutchison, as if they’re always gasping to keep pace with the instruments racing ahead of them and it’s serviceable, a nice ode to a wonderful song. But it’s Julien Baker who sees the framework of the number and restructures it, drawing out phrasing, layering vocals so, like so many of her songs, it reaches every pew, every listener as if delivering a hymn. All of this swells until the last notes when the backing music ebbs away, her voice a distant rallying call, the lyrics “and you’re not ill, and I’m not dead, doesn’t that make us the perfect pair? You should sit with me and we’ll start again” reverberating through as a last, hopeful hand towards retribution, rebirth, that sense of urgency twisting into something melancholy.
The entirety of the album is a massive achievement, with artists such as Daughter bringing their specificity to songs such as “Poke” and others such as Manchester Orchestra staying closer to the original and both are welcome additions to an album that works both as a celebration of a bands discography since but also as a means to eulogize a man whose mind and body left this world far too soon. If there’s anything to grasp onto though – and this record and it’s collaborates suggest there’s much – it’s that there will always be those singing his songs or, at the very least, humming along, taking his words and performative energy and using it as a foundation of their own creative self-discovery. He was hurting, but we never got the sense that that’s why he sang – as a fan, I can’t help but believe he would have found his voice regardless of any fog that flooded his view.
“The rest of me is a version of a man built to collapse in crumbs/ and if I hadn’t come to the coast to disappear/ I may have died in a landslide of rocks and fears.”
Of course, over the course of their discography, despondency settled further in, moving on from the energized earlier albums into something brushed with sorrowful dreams and of course, looking back there’s a want to over-analyze, to seek out pain to give us hints as to what happened and why. But to greater enjoy Hutchison and Frightened Rabbit’s work isn’t to seek out that source of frustration and lean in on it because we shouldn’t allow ourselves codependency on someone else’s demons. Rather, listen to the art that was created, find a community in those like minded individuals who don’t just listen and hear the same notes but the same intent. His voice, overwhelming us with that brusque delivery, whiskey graveled and torn with emotion, asks us to seek out our own answers to the divine, abstract and beautifully vague. There’s loneliness and sadness, but again, as demonstrated by the onslaught of contributions for this tribute album, an all encompassing need to come together and contemplate what came before, take value in today, and look to the future with willfully defiant optimism. Gone, not forgotten, Hutchison’s legacy as an artist still rings momentous.
If you or someone you know is in a crisis, confidential help is available for free. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.