The title of Frightened Rabbit’s fourth full-length release, Pedestrian Verse, is taken from a line in “State Hospital”, the eponymous track from their recent EP. The woeful protagonist, victim of misbegotten beginnings and unfulfilled sexual escapades (sound familiar?) is described as “a slipped disc in the spine of community / a bloody curse word in a pedestrian verse”; reduced to a mere profanity, she lacks even the dignity of being offensive in a noble setting. A “pedestrian verse” is an average one: normal, everyday, unremarkable. It takes a bold sort of self-deprecation to use that as an album title.
That theme runs through Pedestrian Verse, though ironically set to a richer variety of sounds than the band has ever presented before. While breakout 2007 release The Midnight Organ Fight remains possibly the greatest bitter-single-person album of all time, the tightly constrained rhythms and miserable lyrics that make the tracks catchy are also what make the album something of a downer. Much of follow-up The Winter of Mixed Drinks follows a similar formula. But there’s only so much you can achieve within such a specific frame, and so Pedestrian Verse finds Frightened Rabbit doing what every band strives for: truly evolving (here by experimenting with tone, pacing, and subject matter), all while preserving their musical strengths (chiefly, Scott Hutchison’s clever lyrics and thick, deliciously accented vocals). Here, finally, is a Frightened Rabbit for all seasons: warm, buzzy tracks intersect with quieter, calmer numbers, and a few touches of the old acidic sadness, all tied together into a multi-dimensional package.
Though dreary, “State Hospital” maintains a squeak of optimism (“All is not lost,” wails Hutchison at the end). Similarly effective is “The Woodpile”, whose protagonist begs to be found. “Won’t you come and break down this door?” he pleads, adding hope that you “come find me now, where I hide / and we’ll speak in our secret tongues.” This simple, deeply human desire for understanding has its limits though, as seen in “Housing (In)”: “You can’t carry me away now / I have just laid my head down,” a plea for space that comes just three tracks after the burning desire for contact. Even longed-for connections have their difficulties, built as they are between inherently flawed humans, and branching out to explore both sides of the conflict displays a serious lyrical maturity.
Musically, the tracks still bend around Hutchison’s heartbreaker of a Scottish accent, and in doing so they preserve the “Frightened Rabbit sound.” That said, Pedestrian Verse shakes up tone and rhythm more than any of the band’s previous records. Tracks like “Late March, Death March” use the original formula, but alter the key to avoid repetition, and “Housing (Out)” replaces the whole equation with thick fuzz, glowing back-up vocals, and revival-tent percussion, lending the brief number an incandescent warmth.
That track leads the transition into “Oil Slick”, which coalesces the album’s sense of longing and self-deprecation. “Only an idiot would swim through the shit I write,” opines Hutchison. “How can I talk of light and warmth? / I’ve got a voice like a gutter in a toxic storm.” Not content to tear apart the present, the lyricist takes aim at the band’s previous work over a rise-and-fall backing chorus: “I came home with four worn-out limbs and not one love song / how predictable this is all you got / yet another selfish signpost to my ruin of faults.”
But Frightened Rabbit’s so-called faults — the band’s self-indulgent lyrics, indie-rock styling, damned catchy choruses — have always been their strengths as well, and the band must know it. It takes a perversely honest musician to admit his own flaws, and as Frightened Rabbit ‘fesses up, we love them more. Would that we could all see as clearly, that we could downplay something as precious as Hutchison’s voice, as he does here, rather than preening. Would that we could find our faults, and in finding, possibly correct them — developing ourselves rather than sinking further into self-indulgence. “There is light but there’s a tunnel to crawl through… / we’ve still got hope so I think we’ll be fine,” Hutchison soothes, birds chirping of spring and healing in the background. Indeed, would that we all had the audacity to call our own master works “pedestrian.”
Essential Tracks: “The Woodpile”, “Oil Slick”, and “State Hospital”