The Hard-Won Hope in Scott Hutchison's Musical Storm

Scott Hutchinson
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Scott Hutchison of Frighted Rabbit performs at Lollapalooza on July 29, 2016 in Chicago.

When Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison sang in his wounded Scottish burl, “Let’s promise every girl we marry we’ll always love them when we probably won’t,” my pulse spiked.

I rode the 7 train out to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens listening to the band’s 2013 album, Pedestrian Verse, and when I got there, I had to sit on a bench to steady my breathing. It was a panic attack, sure. But I became addicted to this song, to this band, and to the way Hutchison’s words (and too much coffee) had so handily reduced me to hyperventilating. A few years later, they named their fifth album Painting of a Panic Attack, and I couldn’t help but smile bleakly. We were bonded.

I trembled then because I knew I was in a doomed relationship, though it wouldn’t officially end for another two years. I also knew that Hutchison, who died this week at 36, had a gift: His confessional, powerful prose could level you. In the gathering hurricane of his lyrics -- often painted across gloomy, electric post-punk -- fans recognized pieces of themselves. And in them, they often found sanctuary, even as Hutchison dipped into the grim and the grimly comic. That same song, “Acts of Man,” begins with a self-deprecating proclamation of toxic masculinity: “I am that dickhead in the kitchen/ Giving wine to your best girl’s glass.”

Hutchison was also capable of immense sweetness, an affable accent cloaking his heart-ached delivery on the surging “Get Out” and the smoldering “Things,” which he named just last week as his favorite Frightened Rabbit song. His band’s beloved 2008 album, The Midnight Organ Fight, found Hutchison’s words guiding an embattled ship directly into a darkening storm, and follow-up The Winter of Mixed Drinks made that literal on “Swim Until You Can’t See Land.” The funny part, of course, is how that song sounds like it should soundtrack a sunny day in the park, not a damned long night at sea. It’s a canny trick, one Hutchison and the rest of Frightened Rabbit pulled to make life’s moroseness appear more palatable.

Hutchison did this exquisitely right from his songwriting start in the mid-2000s. Frightened Rabbit’s charming debut, Sing the Greys, teems with an endlessly replayable nervous energy, with three instrumental tracks representing three particular “incidents” of increasing direness. He found his own wit through inspirations like Jeff Mangum, and a howling cover of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Song Against Sex” filmed in 2010 is a wonderful look into his creative mind. Perched on a stone bench in front of a quaint hedgerow (and bereft of horn accompaniment), Hutchison closes his eyes as he yawps the trumpet parts himself -- almost like he’s sorry to be making such a fuss, you know, sorry, but this is the part that really calls for something special.

In that very grave song, sung here by him in an Edinburgh garden, sex and love simply can’t coexist, so escape begins to feel like the only reasonable option. It’s a thread he picked up for Frightened Rabbit’s “Keep Yourself Warm,” where he very bluntly declares, “You won't find love in a hole,” try though his escapist impulses might. Indeed, escapism haunts many Frightened Rabbit songs. Hutchison looks for a fire door amid an impending blaze on “The Woodpile,” seeks out momentary carnal comfort via “human heat” on “The Twist,” and longs to dry out on the self-explanatory “I Wish I Was Sober.” “There’s no heroism in this [song],” he told Gigwise in 2016.

But committing your truth to song, no matter how emotionally taxing it must be, and then climbing onstage nightly and hearing a crowd sing your own neuroses and hang-ups back to you, that is heroic. On “Acts of Man,” Hutchison spends three minutes recounting the awful exploits of deadbeat dads and abusers as not heroic before finally broadcasting his own small positive hopefulness. Even in his starkest escapist narratives, there lived hope, always hard-won and clutched to the chest.

That’s why Hutchison’s death feels so personal. When an artist so consistently lays himself bare before you, you can’t help but invest. You find the buried message that’s specifically for you among all the guitar noise and melodicism (he had an exceptional ear for both). It can feel impossible to release what you’re most magnetized to, which is why in the dozens of fan tributes that filled social media today, no two people on my feed posted the same Frightened Rabbit song. But in nearly all of them, even as pure rancor threatened to take hold, you didn’t have to look far to find something bright, if not exactly beaming.

Tributes from fellow musicians like Craig Finn and Ben Gibbard focused on the transformative power of Hutchison’s music. “His songs are often sad,” Finn wrote, “but being in a room singing them along with a crowd made things feel better, even triumphant.” When it was Hutchison’s own lunar examinations of self piled high on propulsive guitars and crashing drums, things could certainly feel much better. And hearing him on record now, they still do. “You're acting all holy/ Me, I'm just full of holes,” goes his sarcastic tongue on “Holy” as one of the most uplifting and party-ready rhythms of the band’s catalog goes up in flames behind him. It sounds good.

Yet just two songs before, Hutchison had bellowed the line about fleeting love that left me in an anguishing anxiety spiral. But that was before the fog lifted. As “Acts of Man” winds to a close, Hutchison leaves a buoy in the middle of the tempest. “I’m here, I’m here,” he closes, suddenly weightless above the smog, “not heroic, but I try.”