By Casey Newton of Crumbler
Late Sunday night, the boys in Frightened Rabbit fired a shot at their reviewers at Pitchfork. “Har har!” they wrote on Twitter. “Pitchfork compared us to Muse… Fucking idiots (both).” The tweet belonged to a proud tradition of artists lashing back against the era’s most influential indie tastemaker. Over the past decade, Pitchfork’s reviews have caught flak from musicians famous and obscure. Ryan Adams’ Rock ‘n’ Roll got such a bad review that he demanded (and received) an interview with the site; “Some of the stuff was so mean that I was laughing out loud,” he told Amanda Petrusich. After a 3.7 review of their album a few years back, an Austin band named Sound Team filmed a clip in which they stab a dummy with a pitchfork, throw it off a cliff, then set it on fire. Jet, whose album Shine On was “reviewed” with an embedded YouTube clip of a monkey drinking its own urine, last year wrote a song about how much they hate the site and its followers: “You little Pitchfork whore, at your thrift store / You are a fucking bore, you make me sick!” In keeping with Jet’s tradition of understated social commentary, the song was called “One Hipster One Bullet.”
Compared to those artists, Frightened Rabbit’s aggrieved tweet may seem quaint. But it struck me as a little daring, given both the site’s influence and its role in helping to bring them into the indie mainstream. Pitchfork gave the band’s 2008 Midnight Organ Fight their coveted Best New Music designation, and after raves from Spin, Paste and even ABC News, Frightened Rabbit played a host of sold-out club shows and festival dates. Anticipation for the band’s next album ran high, especially after the release of an advance single last year. “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” is an anthem about leaving behind an awful past and starting over, even though the future seems even more dangerous and uncertain. At its heart lies a taunt that Scott Hutchinson repeats endlessly in an effort to goad himself into moving on: “Are you a man, or are you a bag of sand?” This song, as good as any the band has done, is the sort you pound along with on your dashboard. And yet Pitchfork — a site that has introduced me to more great music over the past decade than any other, and is home to some of my favorite writers — was now comparing the band to Muse. Had they missed something?
The review of The Winter of Mixed Drinks was assigned to Rebecca Raber. It is fair to say that Raber, who gave it a 6.6, would not have been my first choice. This is a person who once noted about a Justice show that “excitement was definitely in the air,” and told readers to “get your tickets now, and don’t forget your dancing shoes!” When Chamillionaire released a mixtape before Christmas, she had this to say: “When visions of sugarplums are supposed to be dancing in your head as you wait for Santa to bring your gifts, why not hanker down at your computer instead and start the holidays early.” In her time she has weighed in on the early Stones (“sexy”), We Are Wolves (“sexy”), the Thermals (“sex appeal”), and White Williams (“sexy”). As I hankered down at my computer to read her review, I braced myself.
Raber’s central criticism is that The Midnight Organ Fight, which she loved, was (in her mind) about fucking, whereas The Winter of Mixed Drinks is not: “Midnight Organ Fight announced with its title that its underlying concern was sex … and the songs on this new album, though more lyrically complex, seem neutered by comparison.” She goes on: “It was more viscerally affecting to hear Scott’s hangdog tales of how it’s OK with him if you call out the wrong name during sex or how it takes more than fucking someone to keep warm than it is to hear him detail the frustration, purpose or assurance of moving on and growing up.” Worst of all, she says, the lead singer seems happy: “Frontman Scott Hutchison is, as he sings, not miserable anymore. Midnight Organ Fight was an account of his own terrible breakup, and though he doesn’t necessarily sound happy throughout Mixed Drinks, he is definitely more optimistic and less heartbroken.”
A close listen to Mixed Drinks raises doubts as to whether anyone here is “definitely” more optimistic or less heartbroken. Here are some things that happen on the record: Hutchinson burns his old things in an effort to destroy the memories they contain. He gets lost in a forest, and screams “to prove to everyone that I exist, in the loneliness.” He gets drunk and starts a fight. He digs his own grave.
Raber summarizes these events as Hutchinson’s “newly earned glass-is-half-full outlook.”
Then there’s “Not Miserable,” which Raber calls “a clue to Mixed Drinks’ new sound.” A more probing critic might have moved past the song’s title to explore what lies underneath: a haunting remembrance of the night the singer almost committed suicide. “Though it’s easier now,” Hutchinson sings, “I will always remember the night that I almost drowned / all alone in a house.” There is little optimism to be found here: “Though the corners are lit, the dark can return with the flick of a switch. It hasn’t turned on me yet — yet.”
According to Raber’s review, it is more “viscerally affecting” to describe drunken sex than it is to recall your darkest moments, or to acknowledge that you continue to be stalked by a powerful depression. The fact that sex is in the background here is taken not as a sign of Hutchinson’s crippling psychic pain but rather as evidence that the songs are “neutered.” (For what it’s worth, the record does have a great song about sex. In “Not About You,” Hutchinson brags to his ex about a new lover. The song starts with a wonderfully paradoxical line: “This is a story and you’re not in it.”)
Does Raber really believe what she has written? Or, as I think is more likely, did she simply not spend much time with this album? For all its lazy descriptions and overstuffed sentences, Raber’s review could be distilled down to a single word: “Meh.” I have to believe that had she listened a few more times, perhaps following along with a lyric sheet, she would have been struck by the inspirational story at the heart of Frightened Rabbit — the idea that you can transmute your despair into anthems, heal your pain through art, and connect with the thousands and millions who know just how you feel.
I write all this not because I worry Raber’s review will sink Frightened Rabbit’s fortunes or cause them to quit making music. Nor do I think this review is some indicator of Pitchfork’s general decline. The site publishes hundreds of reviews a year, and there are bound to be clunkers. I write only because The Winter of Mixed Drinks deserves better. Sonically, it is very much of a piece with its rollicking predecessor — cacophonous guitars, percussion like a SWAT team pounding at your door, and choruses that reach for the heavens. Lyrically, it finds Scott Hutchinson moving toward peace but still far from it. Hard-won moments of hope are tempered with times of overwhelming fear and doubt. There is an honesty to this record that is as bracing and undeniable as winter in Selkirk. In a week where we mourn the man behind Sparklehorse, a similarly fragile artist who succumbed to his depression, it seems churlish to dismiss as insufficiently “visceral” the work of a man who peered into the same abyss Mark Linkous did but who chose to come back to us.
And so perhaps we should not be surprised by Frightened Rabbit’s fuck-you to Pitchfork. They spouted off not because they had been given a bad review, but rather because they had been reviewed badly. In music writing there is no appeal to a higher court, to a third-base umpire, to instant replay. The music has to make the case for itself. In this case, I believe it does. On Twitter, I attempted to ask Rebecca Raber how much time she spent with The Winter of Mixed Drinks. She didn’t respond. And so I don’t know, and probably never will, how many times she listened to the record. What I do know, reading her work, is that she never heard it.