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Book Review: 'The Work' collects Scott Hutchison's Frightened Rabbit lyrics

'The Work,' a complete collection of Frightened Rabbit’s lyrics, is a very personal tribute to an artist who was lost too soon.
'The Work,' a complete collection of Frightened Rabbit’s lyrics, is a very personal tribute to an artist who was lost too soon.Warner Music
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by Jay Gabler

January 20, 2022

In an epigraph to The Work, Scott Hutchison says that he’s often been asked whether he writes stories or poems. The answer was no: he just wrote song lyrics. “The structure of music really appeals to my brain,” he explained. “The process of finishing songs and putting them into a neat little space isn’t cathartic, it’s more like, ‘OK, I understand that now.’”

While those were the feelings of the man who wrote and sang Frightened Rabbit’s lyrics, untold numbers of fans have had experiences with the Scottish band’s songs that could certainly be called cathartic. Songs like “I Feel Better” (from The Midnight Organ Fight, 2008) are seismic in their impact, with the band’s music surging behind Hutchison’s poignantly pained delivery.

“There was a line in the sand,” Hutchison’s bandmates write in a foreword to The Work. “The music is the band; the words, Scott.” That makes The Work, a complete collection of Frightened Rabbit’s lyrics, a very personal tribute to an artist who was lost too soon: he died, by suicide, in 2018.

Hutchison was a visual artist before he was a professional musician; he studied at the Glasgow School of Art, and would create album and poster art throughout the career of Frightened Rabbit, a band that took its name from the way his mother characterized him when he was young and suffering from anxiety.

A collaborator in Frightened Rabbit’s album design was Dave Thomas (no relation to the Wendy’s founder), who brought The Work to fruition. It’s along the lines of projects the band had discussed prior to Hutchison’s death, his brother and bandmate Grant Hutchison told NME. “A lot of people keep saying that this is his story or his journey,” the drummer said. “There are elements of that, but I see it as a physical space – a house or a building that you can go in different rooms at any point and see different stuff.”

That stuff includes both the typewritten lyrics and handwritten drafts, including words that were never used, along with drawings from Scott Hutchison’s notebooks. Some are dark, some are absurd, some are whimsical. The book also includes various iterations of the band’s double-cross logo, designed by Hutchison.

It makes clear - if this wasn’t sufficiently obvious from the music along - just how personal Frightened Rabbit was for its frontman. The Work also demonstrates just what a distinctive writer Hutchison was. Listen to a Frightened Rabbit song, and everything falls exactly into the right place. Reading the lyrics in the absence of music, it’s striking how rarely Hutchison employed standard techniques of meter and rhyme.

Not to slight Billy Bragg and Wilco, but Woody Guthrie’s lyrics are so musical, they practically sing themselves. Not so with the words of Scott Hutchison, which on the page often read like free verse. Consider, for example, “Tiny Changes,” the song that inspired the name of the mental health charity established after Hutchison’s death and one that I never considered particularly unconventional.

When my blood stops
someone else’s will have not
when my head rolls off
someone else’s will turn
and while I’m alive
I’ll make tiny changes to earth.

Like many of Hutchison’s lyrics, those take on a special resonance in the wake of his death. His great lyrical preoccupations were love, loss, connection, and the meaning of it all - or the lack thereof. His songs could be bitter, but they carried an abiding faith in his lovers, and in himself. They could also be brutally funny, and if lines like “you’re the s—t and I’m knee deep in it” don’t pack nearly as much wallop on the page as they do on record, nonetheless The Work makes Hutchison’s words tangible in a manner that’s clearly meaningful to those who loved him and his songs.

The book takes its title from a 2011 song written in collaboration with Archie Fisher. “When the work stops working,” sang Hutchison, “shall we pack it all in/ or start again?” While it’s heartbreaking to know that Hutchison himself can’t start again, he did in the past - dozens of times, as documented here. Whether or not “the work” ever stopped working for him, it’s still here for us to appreciate.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club Picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

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