With songs entitled “Backyard Skulls,” “Late March, Death March,” and “Dead Now,” it seems evident that Frightened Rabbit still have some stark gloom left to share on their now fourth studio album, Pedestrian Verse. On their previous releases, including 2008’s breakout, The Midnight Organ Fight; and its follow-up, 2010’s The Winter of Mixed Drinks, the Scottish five-piece band garnered a reputation of not being shy. Lyrics often revolve around morbid themes and include candid, revealing details on everything from sex to jealousy to pain, and all and all, the crippling, unwavering thoughts and feelings that accompany a bad breakup.
Despite the foretelling of some of its song titles, Pedestrian Verse is a departure of sorts for Frightened Rabbit. And though there are some poignant and mature glimmers of hope on the album, that’s not the overbearing change that’s represented on it. It’s the self-awareness: Frightened Rabbit know they are a band that makes sad songs. It seems they don’t want to always focus on the unfortunate and heartbreaking aspects of love and life, however, that’s the catalyst to their music. The confrontation involved in that introspective awareness results in a powerful and rewarding fourth album— Frightened Rabbit’s most substantial and compelling album to date.
Album opener, “Acts of Man,” begins just like any other Frightened Rabbit song. Over slow-building piano, guitars and drums, frontman Scott Hutchison repeatedly shines a light on the depressing, less virtuous scenes of humanity: “Lets promise every girl we marry, we’ll always love them and probably won’t/ While a knight in shitty armor rips a drunk out of her dress/ One man tears into another, hides a coward’s heart in a lion’s chest.” Yep, same old Frightened Rabbit. But wait. The track breaks around the 3:20 mark– it easily can end there, but it doesn’t. Instead, there’s a few guitar strums and Hutchison begins again, but this time, with hope, direction and self-betterment: “ I have never wanted more to be your man and build a house around you/ I am just like all the rest of them– sorry, selfish, trying to improve/ I’m here, I’m here, not heroic, but I try.” It’s a beautiful moment of clarity; an atypical, optimistic turn for the band, and a noticeable sign of growth.
“December’s Tradition” is simply a phenomenal track. From a sparse, guitar-plucking intro, it teetor-totters with tempo, only to rupture into a grand finish. Grant Hutchison’s drum work stands out on the song, but is careful not to overpower it. “Holy” and “The Woodpile” are other energetic highlights showcasing the band’s entire instrumentation clicking on fast-paced, rock n’ roll arrangements.
“Dead Now,” “Nitrous Gas,” and album closer, “Oil Slick,” are more standouts on Pedestrian Verse. They also each confront Frightened Rabbit’s near obsession with unhappiness in their music. “Dead Now” consists of a gentle dance-hall rhythm, generally upbeat tempo and a catchy melody. However, the lyrics single-handedly darken the mood: “The life has been mined from me/ Burned for the heat.” Of all the gloom “Dead Now” trenches through, Hutchison resolves to put the blame on himself in the simple chorus “There’s something wrong with me.” “Nitrous Gas” dances with that same resolution, but more specifically, confesses an unwillingness to accept happiness: “throw up the sickly joy, and I’ll swallow the sweet self-loathing/ I’m dying to be unhappy again.”
“Oil Slick” cuts right to it, openly baring the band’s love song inabilities in a fresh, bouncy melody. Hutchison begins the song singing, “I went looking for a song for you/ Something soft and patient to reflect its muse/ I took a walk down my brightest thoughts/ The weather soon turned and they all ran off/ To to the ocean in a boat this time/ Only an idiot will swim through the shit I write/ How can I talk of light and warmth/ I got a voice like a gutter in a toxic storm.” Yes, all those lines had to be included because the song is poetic brilliance. Frightened Rabbit have made numerous songs about inabilities and faults, many falling within the realm of a relationship. However, now that critical eye has shifted directly towards the subject of their music. And, not surprisingly, the perennial downers are not happy with the limitations of it. It’s an honest and bold approach, a fearless take on the self-awareness of their art.
With Pedestrian Verse, Frightened Rabbit try to turn the corner, try to find the silver lining, but they helplessly settle on looking in the mirror. They tap into a level of self-awareness that few musicians have the courage to reveal to themselves, let alone in their songs. Frightened Rabbit have made an album that will hold its own in a year full of highly-anticipated new music. It’s not just Frightened Rabbit’s best album to date, it’s an early candidate for one of the best of the year.