For me, and for many others, 2018 was a year indelibly marked by the suicide of Frightened Rabbit’s singer, Scott Hutchinson. Suicide – even the mention of its name can seem daunting to behold, to bear. To be explicit is not to distinguish it as a unique evil from other kinds of death or passing, but rather the opposite: to neither romanticize it as a salvation from pain, nor to besmirch its victims as callous or villainous. It is to be forthright, to be pointed about our vulnerability, to render it incumbent on us to discharge shame whilst not countenancing suicide’s inevitability. I think that’s what Scott would have wanted. For throughout his artistic work, he embodied this vulnerability, this candour.
One of the most excruciating dilemmas to grapple with is whether this was salve or further bane to his suffering. Perhaps it was both. It is necessary to dispel the damaging idea that writing must be a torture, glorifying suffering as a fuel for artistry, but this can elide the very monstrous recesses into which imagination can in fact lead us. Where is the boundary between catharsis, and bloodletting? Did vividly singing about suicide in Floating in the Forth time after time wreak an anguish in him? What responsibility did the music industry, the spotlight, the world, have for what happened? Unanswerable questions still plague, frozen in limbo. None of this seems right, or fair. How are we supposed to know if we’re doing any of this right, dazed still by the vicissitudes that have come to be petrified in Frightened Rabbit’s music?
Every song can seem now a dirge, a harrowing divination of what has come to pass, a red flag fluttering henceforth in tatters, an ever smouldering flare. Like he was crying out, and the world did not answer. I’m sure they did, particularly his family and friends, and it would be wrong to retrospectively map meanings on to his art simply for the sake of desperate consolation. But horror compels us thus, with stability disintegrated so, eclipsing into maelstroms. This is especially the case because that desperate consolation coursed through Frightened Rabbit’s songs. They felt like pleas for hope. Prayers for the fucked. Perhaps something more could have been done to protect him, as he sang about in It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop. I wonder what Christmas will be like for Frightened Rabbit without Scott, especially for his brother, how haunted or cold those festive lights might feel for his absence, that it can never be the way it once was. How all that was enchanting can seem a necromancy, as if there is no respite from pain such as this, and what little serenity remains feels simulated or frail or ephemeral, vitiated by the endless collapse, life itself drowned and halted, spiralling with a screech in freefall. I wonder what hearing those songs is like for them now, how one possibly picks up the relic of an instrument again after a world is shattered like that, how they might always bear the grievous, strident echo of loss. He should still be with us. He could still have been with us. Bargaining – a consolation, and a torment. A buffer against the terrible turmoil of the realization that he is gone, and could not be saved; the paralysing despair that sometimes we cannot help when those we care for are most in need.
The key may well be collective agency, but it sometimes feels remote, impossible, formulaic: another layer of helplessness, the social order malignant and crumbling so, material conditions so abject, that it’s entirely inexorable that we feel this way. How do we thrive, amid cutthroat circumstance, in a context where short-circuited fantasies of individual will are weaponized to morally punish us for not recovering, to perpetuate the vicious cycles of stigma and blame? How do we empathise utterly with the constraints of these conditions, whilst not resigning ourselves to them? To honour that the gravity of loss is irredeemable, whilst seeking out hope, is the labyrinthine knot of processing grief – a knot we feel most painfully at Christmas, when the mythical joy of intimacy that seems to belong to everyone else can feel most acutely vanished in the comparison. What does it mean not to simply ‘move on’ or ‘let go’, but neither clutch with bloodied hands to the shards forever? A prayer can feel more honest, can resonate more, even if it might be a cop-out. There’s no key when all that surrounds seems to be a void. Reason is often little safeguard.
And so Frightened Rabbit’s songs were something of a portal, albeit firmly anchored in malaise. A chance for the rot to stop, if only for a while. A warm, if draughty and ramshackle, sanctuary, the sticky floors and dazzling lights and inelegant dancing of a dingy venue. A relief from that wrenching weight that bears down on all our chests, lifted in the surge of the crowd. A solace, illuminating and resounding through the disquiet that we are a blot on the world in refrains of aching, bruised communality. Clumsy and brave, wry whilst not as cynical as they would like to believe, wistful but only seldom resentful. Raw, and tender because of it. Bittersweet. Vivid meditations on the agony of living with suicidal ideation, forestalled by the affirmation that it was worth persevering. Beset mercilessly by illness but still declaring triumph against death, still demanding another day, still finding the heart to ask how your loved one’s day was because however strained it feels connection is the balm to grief, because those day-to-day concerns are the most important details in the world, because to go on and to not give up on goodness or kindness or hope is the most magnificent of victories. What happened to Scott doesn’t detract from that. I think he would have wanted us to not let it, for us to still chant the chorus of Modern Leper with all the heart and fire we can possibly muster, even through the tears that he couldn’t make it, that he should still be here singing it and never again can.
At depression’s core is an assertion that all happiness is a ruse, an illusion, always feigned; there is something in that which taps into the broader absurdity and dread of the human condition as much as the profound alienation, curated positivity and immiserating ‘prosperity’ of capitalist society. Frightened Rabbit’s songs resonated at the contradiction all those who have experienced mental illness will be familiar with: happiness is a sham, and it damn well isn’t. It is a sideshow, and the whole reason everyone stays on the stage to outlast their doubts and fears for just a few more hours, a few more days, the genuine euphoria so many people felt watching Frightened Rabbit on stage, that I only hope he felt too. It is impossible, and miraculously possible. A gift, just like their music remains. With it, perhaps we can all get at least the chance to stop this Christmas, even if it’s a jagged wish, even if joy sometimes feels too much like mere escape. To continue making those tiny little changes to earth, remembering our capacity to do so was bolstered by the changes he made, that he’s still making, protecting us with his music. To mourn, and celebrate, and care, as deeply as we possibly can. These songs have always been attempts to claw out of the abyss, to reach out even with clammy and trembling hands, bashful and earnest embraces wrested from the clutches of decay, clinging on and aching not for death, but life. They are a reminder of the harbours we can create for one another.