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Listening To Music That’s Sadder Than You

“What’s the blues when you’ve got the greys?” sings Scott Hutchison, found dead at age 36 last week in Edinburgh, on the opening track of Frightened Rabbit’s debut album. Instantly he marks the border between melancholy and depression, anguish and the art it creates. But already he’s blurred that line. This is a shredding, stomping indie-rock single that recounts Scott’s worst weeks in unromantic terms — the sweat-stained bed, self-enforced solitude, and that visceral, permeating nausea with no relief: “I’m sick of feeling sick and not throwing up, and you sit in my stomach and you seem to be stuck.”

I’m lucky. I’ve never felt this pain that Scott poured into his music. So far in life, I haven’t needed medication for mental health problems. No suicide prevention hotline has fielded any call from me, nor have I given friends and family cause to worry that I might harm myself. By any conceivable metric, I cannot know Scott’s affliction. So why has Frightened Rabbit, for more than a decade, and since that very first song, plucked at something in my throat, as if they’re saying what I want to? Was I always just a voyeur, fetishizing what Scott called his “Scottish miserabilism,” the way he’d “chuck a bucket of cold water over” something as happy as California pop and drown its entire meaning?

What got me into Frightened Rabbit was sound, not words: the woolly dual guitars, unanchored by a bass, that alternately scour the ear and seem to catch the air. They have a satisfying brutal edge — the one set I saw them play, touring their breakout The Midnight Organ Fight, Scott’s brother Grant broke a couple of drumsticks — that would often drop out in favor of weightless, beautiful elegy. At that same show, in a packed Brooklyn bar, a couple of bros loudly discussing finance were nearly shushed to death when Scott had the stage to himself for the fragile acoustic solo “Poke.” I perceived myself relating to that song’s dry glance at emotive failure (“Poke at my iris / Why can’t I cry about this?”), but the likewise misty track that follows on the album was the first of Scott’s to truly disturb me, even as it became my favorite. “Floating in the Forth” must now forever be heard as a preceding echo of his death. There he envisions a leap into the River Forth. His body was discovered on its banks. But the song rescued him, and us, because that time, he didn’t jump: “I think I’ll save suicide for another year,” he sang.

Sometimes I want to be sad, so I am. I can’t account for it, and I can’t explain how Scott’s far deeper sadness touched mine from a world away. I’m sad as I write this, of course, but the sadness settles nowhere — for a second I notice the strange wind tossing the sunny day outside, and that is exactly what’s sad. Then I recall that not long before Scott went missing, someone young I knew also took his own life; I’m sad because I will see that boy buried tomorrow. I’m listening to everything by Frightened Rabbit. My ex-wife couldn’t believe my preference for bleak music whenever I’d decided on a bleak mood; she’d want something to snap her out of it, to resist the tailspin into dangerous thoughts. I understood, finally, in contrast to her fight against depression, that I have the privilege of wallowing, of mostly aesthetic ennui and latching on to other people’s heartbreak.

Yet Scott’s achievement was to write romantic ballads without romanticizing the disease that shaped their concerns. If anything, their tuneful brilliance pulled away from the darkest undercurrents. Each hook is a reason to go on. There are doses of tough love that tangle with ideas of masculine stoicism vs. the silent epidemic of male suicide: “Are you a man? / Are you a bag of sand?” On Frightened Rabbit’s last album, Painting of a Panic Attack, Scott finds a hopeful balance: “The perfect place may never exist, may never exist,” begins a song whose refrain is “I still want to be here.” It’s incredible, the number of fans who’ve said that Frightened Rabbit helped them in struggles every bit as dire as Scott’s. Laying bare his guts and nerves, he let light into minds that block it out. My despair was shallow; I did not belong to this band of survivors. But I was welcome.

The heartbreak we’re left with is that Scott imagined he had not done enough, or hadn’t loved others right. But anyone who yanks others back from the abyss — while giving tourists like me a sense of its gravity and scale — has gone above his flaws. Our loss is not only of future music but the knowledge, when listening to the old gloomy stuff, that he is nonetheless still breathing. And though his battle is over, somehow you trust it may come full circle: “I’m away,” he wrote before dying, not “gone.” Like it’s temporary. The last word, “Thanks,” has a sort of sting, though I hear it as a return to the finale of that first album. The Greys concludes with an encore of its opening title song, but now it’s a live performance. It’s a little longer than the studio version, but it feels faster, wilder, better. There’s barely any applause afterward; you’d think most of the audience left already. “Cheers to you all,” Scott says to those who remain. He’s glad they stayed.