Frightened Rabbit have been turning ugliness into an artform for a long time now. Scott Hutchison’s lacerating turn of phrase posits characters at increasingly desperate points in their lives. That feeling you get at 4am, bottle still in hand while you fight back vomit, all the time thinking ”fuck it. Just FUCK IT” – that’s where they reside.
Their success, however you wish to interpret that word, is built on connection. It’s why The Midnight Organ Fight garnered such an intense reaction, and why, for all its bluster and urgent lunges forward, The Winter of Mixed Drinks could never live up to it. It felt exclusionary somehow, like being repeatedly told something you know to be untrue.
Painting of a Panic Attack arrives at a similar juncture. Pedestrian Verse was a towering achievement and a record that hit every mark at which they’d previously aimed, but it left them with nowhere to go. Overexpansion leads to collapse every time. Guitarist Gordon Skene departed, and during his Owl John promos Hutchison revealed that, at the end of 2014, he was sick of Frightened Rabbit altogether.
>…Panic Attack is an album that thrives on new approaches. ‘Get Out’ brings in bendy shoegaze fuzz and a propulsive electronic beat, all the time contorting itself into colourful new shapes. And to the person who wrote that fantastic cyclical guitar figure across the intro and first verse, I salute you. Likewise, the woozy horns that overwhelm ‘Little Drum’s coda while subtly different guitar textures scratch against each channel. There’s a staggering level of detail being paid to each constituent part of this collection. Even in the solitary moments, as on beautiful closer ‘Die Like a Rich Boy,’ there’s world-building going on underneath that works only in service of the song.
That ugliness I referred to earlier has been battered into a kind of stately discord, and credit must partly go to The National’s Aaron Dessner. No stranger to creeping discomfort within his own band, he has brought out a level of grace in Frightened Rabbit that simply wasn’t previously evident. The way that the ‘Blood Under the Bridge’ verses shuffle along on a hip-hop beat and a light organ swell is just wonderful, and it builds patiently to an exacting finish that never feels bloated. ‘400 Bones’ is pretty much perfect as it clutches lovingly to the romance and longing in devotion, while ‘Lump Street’ approaches malevolence through a gurgling synth and a leaden, minimal rhythm to carry Hutchison’s brutal images of cold sex, broken jaws and torn-out tongues.
But then something happens, and it’s indicative of this album’s failing. Just as ‘Lump Street’ recedes before what you imagine will be an overwhelming conclusion, it abruptly removes every trace of menace and instead becomes a foot-stomping folkish romp. It kills everything that has come before, and it’s crushing in its inadequacy. Elsewhere, Dessner’s influence leans far too heavily on his day job, as ‘An Otherwise Disappointing Life’ begins as a National song in every way imaginable. Worryingly, it then tacks on an uncertain anthemic chorus to negligible effect. It’ll probably be a single, but it doesn’t need to exist.
…Panic Attack is also too long. ‘I Wish I Sober’ feels overly familiar and unnecessary, especially as ‘Woke Up Hurting’ appears immediately after, and ‘Break’ could be Coldplay, for crying out loud. One of the better ones, you know, like off Parachutes or something, but Coldplay nonetheless. The best and worst thing I can say about the extraneous parts of this LP is that they are more Frightened Rabbit songs. Now that the band has vastly outgrown its origin as a vehicle for Hutchison’s enviable lyricism, those retreats back to an earlier status quo are that much more glaring. This still feels exactly like the record they had to make, and there are startlingly good stretches to be found, but there’s enough of a disconnect between the songs to make it a slightly jarring experience.
6Aidan Reynolds's Score