Frightened Rabbit: “The Winter of Mixed Drinks”

Everything looks a bit better in the cold light of day: The Midnight Organ Fight was a dark night of the soul, an album of anguish and misery that broke Scottish blokes Frightened Rabbit into the indie rock pseudo-mainstream, chronicling what sounds like it had to have been the worst break-up ever. But time has brought a new band member, a new recording, and a new sense of perspective; with The Winter of Mixed Drinks, the healing process finally begins.

How much of these songs songs is fictional and how much of it is autobiographical, I couldn’t say; judging by the howling pain present in Scott Hutchinson’s voice the last go-around– and the sense of resolve that’s somewhat replaced it here– I’d say there’s a fair a fair helping of real-life at play here. Regardless, this follow-up is an album of intense self-reckoning, the singer’s retreat into the proverbial cabin in the woods, an album that’s darker than the one that came before it if only by virtue of its being more introspective, even existential. It begins literally where the last one left off, Hutchinson picking up the pieces, taking stock of what’s left, and vowing to let his devastation propel him forward and ruin him no more. The loneliness that pierced the heart of The Midnight Organ Fight has faded from the forefront, a lingering memory that doesn’t opress the singer so much as it haunts him– quite literally on album track “Man/Bag of Sand” as the spooky echo of disembodied voices whispering in his ear.

That dichotomy is the album’s central image, by the way; the “man/bag of sand” fork first appears in lead single and key song “Swim Until You Can’t See Land,” a song where Hutchinson gives himself to the roaring ocean, an act of will, a gesture both of surrender and defiance; either he’ll let his sorrow capsize him, or he’ll emerge reborn. Chiming, Edge-like guitar notes float like buoys in a swirling undertow– this is music to get lost in, which sounds basically like what the singer himself is trying to do. Just one track earlier, he rids himself of all the material things that remind him of his “mediocre past”– “I didn’t need these things,” he realizes”– and now he wades into an unpredictable sea, broken but seeing things anew. It’s do or die, for he can wallow in his sorrow no longer. (And I’m glad– for all its many charms, The Midnight Organ Fight could seem a little whiny.)

Of course, there are setbacks. These songs are diary entries from a journey, a daily struggle with the self and with the weight of the past, and when you walk into the ocean you’d better be prepared to be smacked down a few times. Hutchinson’s resolve is never diminished, though it is tested: Album centerpiece “Skip the Youth” is marked by sheer weariness, while the record’s sharpest, funniest song, “Nothing Like You,” is a vengeful tale of a rebound girl, dripping with bitterness.

The music mirrors the singer’s struggle. Where The Midnight Organ Fight stung with an almost visceral pain, The Winter of Mixed Drinks marries its introspection with ocean-deep guitar sounds, its sense of isolation with vast soundscapes, its sometimes clouded thinking with complex atmospherics and layered compositions. If that sounds a little like the formula for a U2 album, it kinda is– think of The Unforgettable Fire atmospherics wrapped around a jolt of Boy-ish energy and you’re on the right track– but Frightened Rabbit is a band marked by real self-awareness; they’re far too sure of who they are to become just another U2 knock-off, and they’ve never sounded more like, well, Frightened Rabbit than they do here, the familiar formula pushing them to try new things, whether they’re writing the most incandescent pop song of their career (“Nothing Like You”) or crafting their biggest slow-burn epic yet (“Skip the Youth”). The band’s maturation as both songwriters and record-makers is most clear on “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”– despite its brooding mood and layer upon layer of sound and atmosphere, it’s basically a propulsive rock song that carries the listener forward.

And moving forward is what this one’s all about: They’ve made an album about pain, and now they’ve made one about rebirth. Rebirth, in this case, doesn’t mean a clean break from the past, neither in the case of the album’s lyrics or of Frightened Rabbit themselves. This is the kind of moving forward that emerges only from a catalyst, from toil and perhaps pain. Frightened Rabbit have worked hard to get where they are, and never lost sight of who they are– but with The Winter of Mixed Drinks, they take a big step forward toward claiming who they really want to be.

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