more on frightened rabbit

So I gave y’all a bit of a tease with my brief “this is the best band ever” post a few weeks ago. Here I hope to do more–even to do some theorizing (oh no!).

FR’s first album is called Sing the Greys. The title track is a fast-paced dive bar ballad about a conglomeration of feelings ever worse (indeed, on a completely different color palate) than “the blues.” Frontman Scott Hutchison’s memorable Scottish brogue can be heard on some tracks and the pumping drums (the foot of Scott’s brother, Grant) are a unique force to be reckoned with, but for the most part this is elementary rock. The songwriting is interesting at best; “Be Less Rude” has some fun puns (“sit on your high horse and you’re spouting high horse shite / I’m afraid you’ve been mislead / your high horse is in fact a pony”) and “Square 9” introduces a couple of heart-wrenching emotional scenarios (“you should peel those ears / cause it’s important that they hear / my hopeful words”). Oh, and the series of instrumental “Incidents” (“First,” “Second,” and “Final”) are pleasant.

On the whole, however, Sing the Greys is child’s play next to FR’s next album, The Midnight Organ Fight.

Here’s where the theorizing begins. Hutchison has obviously seen some heartbreak, but the better-constructed songs on Sing the Greys are the cutesy hope-filled ones about finding love–not the bitter ones about lost love, or love gone rotten. The Midnight Organ Fight, on the other hand, boasts some of the best contemporary songwriting about the complexity of romance.

All of this was the occasion for me to think more seriously about how we express the ups and downs of love. Given the modern pop scene, one would think it easier to communicate the emotional landscape introduced by being in love. In other words, it’s not so hard to write a song about finding love that strikes the heart chords of American youths. More challenging, however, is to write a song that captures that unique amalgamation of emotions that pummel one in the midst of heartbreak.

This requires experience. Concrete experience.

You can’t write a song about being dumped by any old girl. It has to be this girl, this one that you loved–or thought you loved.

Conversely, any teeny bopper with half a brain and a firm command of the English language can write about meeting the perfect guy and falling in love.

Why is this? Why does artful heartbreak remind us of the singularity of love (CS Lewis writes well about this in The Four Loves, under “Eros”) more effectively than clearly–and catchily–communicated heartbeat?

I think it’s because our culture is over-saturated with media (songs, books, TV shows, movies, etc.) that idealize romantic love. More specifically, they idealize the part of love that happens at the beginning: the butterflies, the chivalry, the invigorating brush of the arms.

So everyone feels like they know these feelings. They have these feelings. They experience the world this way. This is their life.

But when you mature a bit, you recognize that there is a formula to this pop culture. It begins to seem inauthentic.

That’s where songs about heartbreak come in. They remain authentic, because you can’t be mad and bitter about any old gal–it’s got to be the one you thought you had a future with, the only one who could really harm you with her words, her actions, because you had given her the ability to do so. You had become vulnerable with her, “naked” in the metaphorical sense.

OK. Enough theorizing. FR’s best song about heartbreak on The Midnight Organ Fight is Track 2, “Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms.”

All the elements of the singularity of love are here: references to specific details about the relationship, her clothes (“keep your naked flesh under your favorite dress”), his physique (“I’m armed to the T and I’m heavy set”), the complexity of his feelings after the fact (“still in love with you, can’t admit it yet”).

Even the humor and one-offs that masterful songwriting presents.

I could write about each one of these songs. But I’ll leave it to let y’all enjoy.

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2 responses to “more on frightened rabbit

  1. Don’t get me wrong, I love this band. I told you about them. But I don’t think they are good lyricists.

    Give me John Darnielle and his brilliant break up album “Get Lonely” any day of the week. Or I guess just on days when I need a poignant heartbreak folk pick-me-down. Especially the music video for “Woke Up New.” But I already told you that.

  2. Thomas Dixon

    Great thoughts, Scotty. I think the insight regarding the inevitable specificity of heartbreak (b/c it’s this girl) is spot on. This is kind of saying the same thing, but heartbreak songs are also more authentic because they literally are authentic–they look back on real, messy life that actually happened. Heartbeat songs look forward b/c everyone wants romance, so you can get away with fantasizing and idealizing about a person or situation that doesn’t exist. Everybody relates because they relate on the basis not of what has actually happened to them, but on the basis of what they want to happen. Even if you’re in a romantic relationship and you’re jiving with a heartbeat song, I would think you’re jiving b/c you’re hoping these lyrics will happen again, instead of remembering when they did happen once.

    It also seems that heartbreak songs are more authentic because they connect more with reality (which sounds like a tautology). Because, oversimplified, heartbreak songs say “Crap happens and it hurts,” whereas heartbeat songs say (or we take them to say) “Romantic love is all I need and it’s gonna last just like this.”

    But I do think that heartbeat songs can be deep. It happens when they have this specificity to a single person, when you risk distancing your message from 99% of your audience for the sake of pointing out those quirks that are valuable precisely because they are NOT what everybody can relate to. Then maybe we can admire such poetry as art, because we can’t fool ourselves into thinking that “we have this too”? Admiration is most satisfying when its object is something bigger and other than you.

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