On Friday, Scott Hutchison was found dead on the banks of the Forth river in Scotland. In 2008, his band Frightened Rabbit released the song “Floating in the Forth” in which the narrator– realistically Hutchison– contemplates suicide by jumping into the Forth river. The song concludes with him deciding to live: “I’ll save suicide for another year.”
Art, meet life.
By now, there are more than a few comprehensive articles about Frightened Rabbit, who they were, why they mattered, why Hutchison specifically cut a distinctive figure in indie rock. It’s also been a few days, and as is the way, much of the internet has already forgotten. For those of us who loved his music, the wound is new, but will last a long time. This is a band people took personally. But the headlines must move on; FR weren’t *quite* big enough, or critical darling enough, to warrant weeks of coverage. Maybe with Hutchison’s death, that’ll change– the posthumous legend status that rewards the dead and mocks the living.
I came to Frightened Rabbit late; I was living in Wales when their first record came out, and my one Scottish Friend (you have to have at least one if you live in the UK) talked about them a bit. They were friends of friends. I never got around to checking them out at the time, busy as I was with writing morbid short stories and listening to rock music that is more sarcastic than listenable. Not tons has changed.
There were songs I really liked at different points, but the record that really stuck them for me was 2013’s “Pedestrian Verse,” an album that was accurately described as folk music delivered as rock anthems. Some of it was the timing; my grandmother, the most influential figure in my life outside of my parents had just passed and funeral jam “Late March Death March” struck a raw nerve. I was hooked.
That record has a lot of sadness on it. But there’s also lot of humor, it has hooks galore, and it ends with “The Oil Slick,” which features one of FR’s catchiest guitar lines and a genuinely hopeful tone; it’s a song that gently acknowledges the self-indulgent elements of earlier work and commits to moving forward in a relationship.
This is something that set Frightened Rabbit apart for me; this was music with real compassion and generosity towards it’s audience. My playlists are full of artists whose music I like but as people I’m sure I’d find obnoxious, intimidating, insufferable, stupid, or maybe just plain awful. But Scott Hutchison seemed like someone who not only would I enjoy having a beer with (I do like beer,) but like he actually cared. A recurring theme in reviews of their music was that this felt less like wallowing in misery and more like genuine commiseration. This wasn’t misanthropic and disaffected, it was warm and relatable. FR’s music was, in the words of a friend about some other Scottish musicians Music made for people like us on days like these. . . by people like us . . . on days like these.
I was a bit bummed, then, when they followed that up with a record called “Portrait of a Panic Attack,” that opened with “Death Dream.” On the nose, guys, I thought, the same way I rolled my eyes when New York Miserablists The National called their record “Trouble Will Find Me.”
Still, “Painting,” the record that would become Frightened Rabbit’s last, has a lot of great songs on it, and while it’s darker than Pedestrian Verse, (though arguably not Midnight Organ Fight) there’s a lot of self awareness; “I Wish I was Sober” is followed immediately by the imminently singalongable “Woke Up Hurting.” Art, life, shake hands.
Even “Painting” ends on a hopeful note: “A Lick of Paint” about being compassionate towards yourself and others, recognizing damage, but not beating yourself up over it. I was in a particularly rough depressive spiral and a friend sent me that song. It worked like a hug. It probably wouldn’t now.
To his credit, Hutchison never romanticized, demonized or glorified his struggles with depression. He was direct and determined, and even on his darkest records, he included hope and care for his audiences that many rock bands simply don’t. This is one of the reasons this stings so much for those of us who found comfort in his lyrics.
He and the rest of the band did their best to raise awareness of both the struggles and the normalcy of mental illness. Hopefully that work will continue.
But the thing that keeps coming back to me is that how every time one of my favorites does this, I’m reminded: art won’t save you. Or, your own art will not save you. It might go a long way, but it’s also okay to get help. And glorifying some mercurial idea of “suffering” as part and parcel with artistry is lazy and destructive. America, when it’s not systematically devaluing art in every arena of public life, likes to set up the idea of the tortured artist. Artists have no choice, but to be tortured– that’s what you get for making art. The only help you are allowed as an artist is your art– it saves other people, so it has to save you.
This dialogue is thankfully changing, due to a lot of artists of all stripes, singers, rappers, comedians, writers, being frank about their struggles. But we still like to think of the artist as being actively, unquantifiably different. Of having some special key, of having a secret knowledge that elevates them above the rest. Sometimes it can really seem that way. But the fact is, artists, musicians, writers, they have a skill that takes work, that they’re applying. They may have insights, or keen powers of observation, but the artist-as-magic narrative overlooks the fact that they’re going through the same rough stuff as many other people.
And just because you can write it doesn’t mean you can beat it.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255