Over their first three records, Frightened Rabbit, has made some big changes. We’ve all but forgotten about the angular, taut rock of Sing the Greys, since it was followed by the excellent songwriting and acoustic-driven, jangle-pop bent of The Midnight Organ Fight. But Winter of Mixed Drinks didn’t expand that so much as it crushed it under the foot of some serious maximalist rock moves. That’s not to say it didn’t work, but old, old fashioned warmth of Midnight Organ Fight became something larger as, well, the band’s shows also became something larger.
So now they’re a big honking rock band, with a major-label deal to boot, but Pedestrian Verse does not, smartly, continue to stretch those limits. It is not about reaching the rafters with sonic layers or sound, but rather to tighten things back up, to find the volatility in—at least in some ways—restraint. This certainly builds out of the more intimate recordings of last year’s State Hospital EP (the title track appears here), though this record finds a middle ground between the closeness of those sounds and the more expansive rock of Winter of Mixed Drinks. This makes for muddled production occasionally, but it also brings us back to the undeniable charms of the band.
Considering songwriter Scott Hutchison’s usual focus, it should be of no surprise that there’s plenty of bitter realizations, self-doubt, and downright bad men that populate these songs. The difference here is that these are larger representations of human condition—as they were on the last record—but rather more tightly wound character studies, or focuses on individual perspectives. Despite the litany of characters on opener “Acts of Man”, the song serves as a sort of map for the rest of the album, a series of roads we could go down and some of which we certainly will. It’s a curious start in that Hutchison puts himself in the shoes of some despicable folks. There’s the “dickhead in the kitchen” boozing up his friend’s girl or the “knight in shitty armor” getting ready to disrobe a girl who has already been sufficiently boozed up. It’s mostly about the shitty things men will do to women, although the assumption that women fall this stuff or cannot avoid their victimization isn’t talked about. The important thing, for the album anyway, is that these instances are forced, not intimate but rather an imposition of will. These are not, as Hutchison so obviously states “heroic acts of man.”
From here, though, the album isn’t all that interesting in trends of habit, even bad ones, but rather the ways in which we conflate intimacy and insularity. There’s lots of hiding on the record. There’s “Backyard Skulls” and the trapped narrator of “The Woodpile”, or the pulled curtains in the “so-called living room” setting of “December Traditions”. In each case, there are these symbols for secrets, things revealed to a confidant. The “Backyard Skulls” are all past mistakes, though they are “not deep enough to never be found”. So while sharing them might be an act of intimacy (and some are listed here), there’s an implication that most will be discovered by accident. They’re there, but they’re still closed off. “The Woodpile” has a plea for a lover to join the narrator, who is (symbolically) trapped in an abandoned building. “Come find me now,” he pleads. “We’ll speak in our secret tongues.” It’s a fascinating song—and also one of the strongest melodically—that talks about life on the fringe, about isolation yourself from the crowd, the consensus, and the possible consequences of that kind of isolation. So while the narrator may be united, the “secret tongues” imply a sort of limitation in their communication. It may be intimate, but it’s also cut off from the world and, with the outside noise closing around them, temporary.
Pedestrian Verse is not short on isolation—see also “State Hospital” and “Late March, Death March”—and the characters are not blameless in their aloneness. There is a question of reliability for these voices. On “Holy”, Hutchison claims “I don’t mind being lonely,” but you’re not sure you buy it. Despite all the admissions here of mistakes and guilt, the album questions how much responsibility these people are actually taking. Hutchison implicates even himself on album closer “Oil Slick”, when he cuts down his own downtrodden lyrics when he sings “only an idiot would swim through the shit I write,” a reference perhaps to the album’s standout track “Swim Until You Can’t See Land.”
But “Oil Slick” doesn’t explain or explore the issue of solipsism and self-destruction of the album so much as it lets us know the band is aware of it. But whether this is a critique or not remains in doubt, mostly because while the writing has gotten leaner and more personal here, the symbols are still impossibly huge. A failing relationship is a “death march”, and then there’s a song called “Dead Now” that equates the same lost feeling we feel elsewhere to, you know, death. All this life-and-death consequence pushes an importance on these songs that’s not needed, and the weighty images sometimes overshadow what’s actually some pretty affecting moments. It also makes you wonder how much the band condones the sort of pining that goes on here, the admission of selfishness and wrong-doing aligned with a romanticized view and continuation of same. This is always the trouble in writing the kind of sardonic stuff Hutchison writes, and at his best he avoids that pitfall nicely and there are plenty of fine moments here, and a nice sonic focus for the band. When that intimact/insularity lines gets confused for the characters here, the album is fascinating. It’s when the two blur for the players that things get a bit more problematic.