“This next song is called ‘I Wish I Was Sober’,” Scott Hutchison told a packed crowd at Rough Trade in New York several weeks ago, introducing a new song from Frightened Rabbit’s fifth full length record, Painting of a Panic Attack. Amused, grinning with teeth under auburn scruff and a sweaty glaze, he laughed and followed it up with, “Oh come on, you’re at a Frightened Rabbit concert, if you want to feel good about yourself go see the 1975.”
That sense of awareness and onstage candor is what perpetuates the band’s dedicated following and the continued understanding of who their fans are, allowing them to mature musically, evolving as artists without sacrificing the poetic dolefulness Frightened Rabbit excels at.
The aforementioned track, “I Wish I Was Sober” (who hasn’t?), is one of, if not, the best tracks on the record because it has all the components that make up a great Frightened Rabbit song: it’s self deprecating, loaded with emotionally astute metaphors like, “Choke down the gateway drug / Open the gates, in came the flood / It comes like a blush of love, it hits me without warning.” Like many successful tracks in the band’s catalogue, the lyrical intention is confused by the steadily rising, upbeat tempo that lends well to the rising emotions of a live audience — harmonies gaining momentum over mournful soliloquies, normalizing universal anguish.
“Woke Up Hurting” and “I Wish I Was Sober” mimic the cinematic rise and fall of songs like “Modern Leper” off the band’s most celebrated record, Midnight Organ Fight. Similarly, the new, stripped down “Die Like a Rich Boy” parallels with, arguably, the band’s most beloved track, “Poke”, from that same record. The two songs have completely different narratives, but both bring Hutchison’s melodic brogue forefront, dropping his Rs and highlighting the melancholic poetry fans come back for.
“Poke” is the perfect tango of crass language and heartbreaking realism that chronicles the death of a relationship, and much of the same narrative is found on Painting of a Panic Attack with songs like “Get Out”. Adversely, “Die Like a Rich Boy” circles two impoverished lovers looking to find honor in death despite the class level they loved-in most their lives. It’s like “Poke”, but for the Bernie Sander’s generation: “I’ve found you now so tear me away / From the feral street they lumped us in / I’ll be Shakespeare’s moonstruck king / We can lose our minds at the top of the hill / We burn cash and carry a decadent flame.”
Even in the ways Frabbit (as they are known to their most devout fans) repeat their strengths, they divert into new musical terrain with the heavy-laden influence of producer Aaron Dessner. In addition to more reverberant melodies, a general deceleration in tempo and the weighty use of organ, there are very direct National nuances. Upon hearing the first few chime and booms of “An Otherwise Disappointing Life”, I expect to hear the opening to the National’s “Conversation 16”, and the piano line in “I Wish I Was Sober” is a dead ringer for a similar part in “Terrible Love”. Dessner’s active role in the National bleeds into Painting of a Panic Attack, pausing the usual rushed anxiety to mull in the sorrow a bit — something The National knows a thing or to about.
Both leading men, Matt Berninger and Scott Hutchison, are the primary scribes behind their indie rock ensembles, both subtly foul-mouthed and unabashedly somber. While Frightened Rabbit’s lifespan is far younger than that of the National, both acts have strong, artistic leaders and neither group has had to forgo a musical lobotomy to stay relevant. If the music industry had high school cliques, Frightened Rabbit and the National would definitely share the same lunch table, so it’s an added treat that they’d share a producer.
Painting of a Panic Attack is Frightened Rabbit dressed up as The National for Halloween. It’s a nice change, but still very much the band fans have come to love.