We all thought that I might change as I got older

“Wish I Was Sober” – Frightened Rabbit

Every band that survives its lean, early days and captures some measure of public attention and success must grapple with the challenges of how to keep the magic going as they move into their musical middle age. Success opens new doors, and bands will quite often make different choices as they step into their 30s. Families are begun. Touring wears. Friendships that the band were built on may fray and fracture.

Frightened Rabbit was in exactly that spot as they approached their fifth album. Following a lengthy tour in support of 2013’s Pedestrian Verse, the band was burnt out and sick of each other. One member left, permanently. Lead singer and main artistic force Scott Hutchison fled his native Scotland for Los Angeles – and a new girlfriend – where he released a solo album and contemplated the future of the band. “Does the world need another Frightened Rabbit album?” was the question he says he continually asked himself.

Tentatively, he decided the answer was yes. He wrote in LA while the rest of the band worked on music in Scotland. Eventually they connected in Brooklyn with producer Aaron Dessner, of The National, and began putting the tracks together. The persistent early word was that the album was very different from previous FR efforts. When the track list was released earlier this year, it looked like something a Frightened Rabbit parody band would put out. Songs like “I Wish I Was Sober,” “Woke Up Hurting,” and “An Otherwise Disappointing Life” seemed like titles someone making fun of the band’s famously morose sensibilities would make up.[1] But lead single “Get Out” soothed fears that the band had gone off in some odd direction.

Then the album hit. It didn’t sound that different, yet it seemed to be lacking something. Where previous FR albums pushed to wring every last ounce of emotion from each song, so many tracks on Painting of a Panic Attack felt restrained and guarded. Where old songs soared majestically or exploded messily, these glided and simmered. After my first full week of listening to it, I was a little disappointed. Dessner said he wanted to give the songs room to breathe, and my first impression was he stole something essential from the band.

But in my second week of listening to the album, it began to come together. Frightened Rabbit have had beautiful moments in the music, but you would rarely call their albums beautiful. Painting of a Panic Attack is incredibly beautiful, and rewards the listener who sticks with it. Musically, it’s the best album they’ve ever done. And for that Dessner deserves immense credit.

Lyrically, well Hutchison can’t help but write wonderful lyrics. Perhaps this album isn’t as raw and bloody as he has been in the past, but it’s still painfully open and honest. In the past he’s generally been focused on romantic failure and its resulting traumas. This album was written when he was living in a relationship rather than trying to recover from one. But many of the songs remain about his admittedly manic approach to love. He points out the dangers of falling so hard, so quickly. He sings of how the relationship helps him mask his perceived flaws and insecurities. There are several “us against the world” moments, where he sings of he and his girlfriend being an oasis of normal (to them at least) in a strange and brutal world.

The best song, to me, is “Break”, a ripping track that is a partial apology by Hutchison to the rest of the band as a whole, and to his brother, drummer Grant, in particular. In his interviews for the album release, Scott admitted that he acted horribly toward his bandmates for a significant stretch of that inter-album period. On “Break” he acknowledges his behavior:

Nothing’s worse
Than realizing who you’ve hurt
I didn’t bend and now we eat the consequence

But I love how he couches his apology in the chorus:

If I bend then I might not break
I should thing about giving in
If I bend then I might be okay
I should think about how it ends

If he bends. He should consider changing his behavior. And the title is “Break” not “Didn’t Break” or “Don’t Break.” He admits that he’s acted like an ass, but he’s not quite sure if he’ll make the changes needed to repair that damage. Like so much of the album, he can never go quite all the way.

Painting of a Panic Attack is a fine album. Musically, it’s gorgeous, full of fantastic lyrics, and gets better with each listen. But that sense of holding back bothers me. This is a band that is so good when they cut loose and let the emotion pour out freely. That only happens a few times on the album, and even then those moments are cut short.

Still, while the magic has evolved a bit, it has not gone away. Hutchison might be in a different place, but as he’s gotten older, he’s not lost his ability to turn his demons into wonderful music.

A quick postscript. As I mentioned, I planned on posting this last Thursday. Then Prince died and that changed everything I was thinking about musically. This review becomes a little more significant by delaying it four days because this Friday is the night Frightened Rabbit make their first ever live appearance in Indianapolis. Yes, I will be there. Yes, I’m ridiculously excited. And, yes, I will share far too many words about the evening next week.

  1. Not only are these real FR song titles, they’re three of the best songs on the album.  ↩