Frightened Rabbit's fourth studio album is a tapestry of carefully crafted verse and gracefully epic instrumentation, stitched with the shortcoming of humankind and laced with the vulnerabilities of love. The well-established Scottish band has undergone a few changes for Pedestrian Verse: their overall sound is a step up from their first three albums thanks to producer Leo Abrahams (David Byrne, Brian Eno), and their songwriting has taken on a new maturity and focus thanks to their freshly collaborative approach. Lead vocalist Scott Hutchison has previously taken on the songwriting responsibilities, penning break-up gems and cynical anthems that we've loved for nearly a decade, but chose to write the material for the new record with the rest of the band. The result is stunning: instead of a tentative confessional collage, each song comes off as a piercing novella, be it about homelessness, addiction, or songwriting itself.
"Acts of Man" serves as a stark manifesto of the singer's purpose, reflected again in the album closer, "Oil Slick": the speaker feels painfully insufficient and broken, but he'll always keep trying, despite the sickening human condition. The song also quickly proves that the group's lush layers of sound have been perfectly mixed and shuffle at all the right cues, so that although Hutchison's voice often remains at the exact same tone and decibel, there is never a dull moment for the listener. "Backyard Skulls" is relentlessly haunting, though it remains in their characteristic major key. "You can't erase the grin from those backyard skulls," sings Hutchison, referring to our dark secrets which lie buried in the ground but can, to our terror, be uncovered. "Holy" starts as an angry rebuke, but ends up as introspective and insecure as a Smiths song: "Don't care if I'm lonely, 'cause it feels like home/I won't ever be holy/Thank God I'm full of holes."
"The Woodpile" sounds like a Sam's Town-era Killers song, with a ringing guitar solo and radiant synths. "Come on, find me now/Let's hide out/We'll speak in our secret tongues" is as close to a straight-out love song as we're going to get. The mixture of homey whistling and crashing drums in "Late March, Death March" shows the exquisite control they have over the balance of their mature sound. Hutchison finally explores other cadences of his voice, and a thrumming background chorus with a steady refrain of "March, Death, march!" make it one of the catchiest songs on the album. The theme of death is prevalent throughout (which doesn't exactly surprise us): Frightened Rabbit gives us their version of a funeral anthem in "Dead Now." "I'm dead now, can you hear the relief?/As life's belligerent symphony's finally ceased," he declares almost joyfully against a background chorus of "oh"s. After they take their vow of, "Join hands now, we'll all sing/To the glory of Hell and the virtue of sin," the song bursts into a gorgeously morbid, major-key rock song with an headbang-worthy guitar solo.
"State Hospital" is probably the masterpiece of Pedestrian Verse. Sometimes it feels like their optimism comes out of nowhere, and this is a prime example: the verses paint a heartbreaking portrait of a girl born into a poor, broken home, sent to boarding school and never fitting in, and finally becoming a homeless prostitute. At the very end of the song, he chants, "But if blood is thicker than concrete, all is not lost, all is not lost!" We're not sure where this sunny outlook comes from, but when he sings it, you feel it in your gut; you can't help taking that leap to be right there with him, hoping and praying for the redemption of humanity. This almost naive optimism is the perfect foil for what comes next, "Nitrous Gas," arguably the second-best track. The novelty of a minor-key song with a heart-wrenching chord change provides the backdrop for a threadbare lament of, "I'm dying to be unhappy again." You could bite down on the tension within the heart of the narrator as he sings, "If happiness won't live with me, I can live with that/Keep all of your oxygen, hand me the nitrous gas." You'll swear you can feel Elliot Smith's ghost hovering around this track.
One of the most interesting moments on the album is the duet of "Housing (In)" and "Housing (Out)," though they clock in at less than three minutes combined. "You can't carry me away now/Please don't steal me from my house/You can't carry me away now/I've just laid my head down," pleads Hutchison in a shaking voice, seemingly from the point of view of a homeless person trying to make their home somewhere near the train tracks. The bookend song is a reprise of sorts, with the narrator telling himself to, "Step forward into the void of the endless home." Yes, they could have combined these tracks into one crashing anthem, but by placing two short vignettes around their other stories, Frightened Rabbit creates a stage set, a little world in which these emotions take place, a world which is harrowingly real.
In the closing song, "Oil Slick," Hutchison's songwriting insecurities, already hinted at in the album title, are painfully on display: "Only an idiot would swim through the shit I write/How can I talk of light and warmth?/I've got a voice like a gutter in a toxic storm/All the dark words pouring from my throat/Sound like an oil slick coating the wings we've grown." It's as if Hutchison wants to remind us that even with all of the fancy production and solidified vocal style, he's still struggling to lay his heart out in a way that we'll find beautiful. Thankfully, the sudden optimism is there to lift us up at the very end: "There is light, but there's a tunnel to crawl through/There is love, but its misery loves you/There's still hope, so I think we'll be fine/In these disastrous times."
Pedestrian Verse shouts out the guilt and filth and pain of being human while reveling in the surge of emotion that comes with the burden of a heart. The lyrics are just as raw as the personal break-up poetry in Midnight Organ, and the fact that they manage to convey universal themes in such emotionally intimate terms makes this an incredibly poignant group of songs. The meticulously balanced soundscapes and polished vocals are just the icing on the cake.
Read our recent interview with Scott Hutchison here.