I wake up excited every Tuesday, even if there are no albums I am particularly anticipating, because every Tuesday brings the chance of stumbling into a thrilling musical experience. I had been hearing some buzz about Frightened Rabbit’s newest album, Pedestrian Verse, so I made sure to give it one of my first listens last Tuesday. Then, I listened to it again, and by Tuesday night I was recommending it to everyone I knew. A relative newcomer to the Scottish band’s music (although, since Tuesday I have listened to all of their albums), I was floored. Pedestrian Verse sounds like what would happen if Mumford and Sons traded in their banjos for electric guitars and replaced their uplifting, simple lyrics with cynical, yet truthful ruminations on the human condition. I wish every Tuesday featured a release like this.
The opening trio of songs on Pedestrian Verse offers a remarkably honest look into the depths of the human heart. “Acts of Man” opens the album with a slow piano line, but builds throughout its running time as lead singer Scott Hutchinson provides example after example of fallen human beings, followed by the chorus: “Not here, not here, heroic acts of man.” Pervading the song is the sense that, at its core, mankind is broken and incapable of heroism, which is confirmed by the song’s fractured background percussion and random bursts of distortion. The confession Hutchinson gives in the bridge of the song almost seems liturgical: “I am just like all the rest of them, sorry, selfish, trying to improve…I’m here, I’m here, not heroic, but I try.” However, as hard as he may try, the rest of the album hints at the futility of attempting to be heroic in one’s own strength. Following “Acts of Man,” “Backyard Skulls” comments on our ability for pretending all is well, even though “underneath the worms we feed, lies silent skulls, smiling at the hypocrisy…all those backyard skulls, not deep enough to never be found.” The upbeat sound of “Backyard Skulls” carries into “Holy,” a vibrant song, driven by pulsing bass and frantic drumming, perfectly matching its bold declaration in the second verse: “Well I can dip my head in the river, cleanse my soul, oh I’ll still have the stomach of a sinner, face like an unholy ghost.” No heroism here, just an embrace of brokenness that marks life’s journey.
An understanding of life’s fallen nature shows up time and time again on Pedestrian Verse. Featuring an insanely catchy bass line and haunting background vocals, “Dead Now” seems like an ode to vice, yet ends with the repeated refrain of “there’s something wrong with me.” On “Nitrous Gas,” one of the album’s most musically tender tracks, Hutchinson again muses on his current state of mind: “Shut down the gospel singers and turn up the old heartbreakers, I’m dying to tell you that I’m dying here.” Throughout the album, Hutchinson is acutely aware of the death surrounding him, occasionally outraged by it, but, more often than not, accepting death as an inescapable facet of life. Everything I’ve talked about so far would appear to be adding up to one seriously depressing album, but amid the darkness and depravity of life, Pedestrian Verse gives us glimpses of transcendence, ultimately creating an album that shines with hope and offers rest to those fatigued by life’s trials.
For me, this ray of hope begins with the final words of “Holy”: “I’ll never be holy, thank God I’m full of holes, full of holes.” Significantly, this admission comes right before “The Woodpile,” perhaps the most relentlessly optimistic song on the album, a shimmering pop anthem replete with stadium-rousing guitar riffs and beautiful shifts from soft to loud throughout its running time. “Will you come back to my corner? Spent too long alone tonight. Would you come brighten my corner, a lit torch to the woodpile high?” asks Hutchinson in the song’s chorus, pleading for fire, for warmth in the darkness of the night. The album’s final track, “The Oil Slick,” brings us through two verses and choruses of Hutchinson comparing his words to an oil slick, before hitting a climatic final chorus, buoyed by pounding drums, explosive horns, and airy background vocals. After all the stories Hutchinson has told, he leaves us with these words: “We’ve still got hope, so I think we’ll be fine in these disastrous times, these disastrous times.” With that the album ends, slowly fading out into a moment of peace, with the sounds of birds chirping and the wind blowing. Hope springs eternal, even in the oil slick of life.
Speaking of an African-American man leaving church on Ash Wednesday, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling, reflects on that man’s reasons for attending the service. Is he there out of duty? Is he there because he truly believes in God? Binx eventually asks this question: “Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus?” Is Pedestrian Verse simply another solid album from a good band doing what they know how to do best? Or is it an expression of grace and hope in a fallen and broken world, despite Hutchinson’s assertion on “Late March, Death March” that “there isn’t a God”? Or am I the recipient of an unexpected grace, a sojourner who has merely stumbled into God’s presence? I am willing to leave these questions unanswered, to let their mystery wash over me, joining my voice to the closing words of The Moviegoer: “It is impossible to say.”