Symbols versus signs. Scott Hutchison, guitarist and lyricist for Frightened Rabbit, has been asked in interviews about the hidden meaning of his band’s use of symbols in their LP artwork and stage design. They have a clear vision of their image. Everything is intentional, from their music to their LP design.You can’t miss it. Symbols appear everywhere.
The most noticeable symbol is the triple-beam cross-like emblem that vaguely suggests a kind of heraldry symbol (to me anyway, much more than, say, a Christian cross). The kind of thing you might see on a coat of arms or a badge. A symbol speaking to a profession, craft, or guild. Of course, the band employs other symbols as well, all of which fit into an old-world aesthetic. Twentieth-century paper cards and forms, embossed books and worn book cloth, rubber stamps and seals, pennants and flags, wooden desks and hand tools with wooden handles, linen cloth and cording. When wrapped around a vinyl record, their lavish gatefold package is pure retro, a window into a place where the physical world is still essential, still part of an everyday creative life. Visible, comforting, worn, but somehow not taken for granted.
The trouble comes when trying to assign meaning to the band’s use of symbols. In this question I side with Carl Jung, that there’s a difference between signs and symbols. Signs have meaning. Symbols are about things unknown or things not fully known, something felt more than understood, truth or virtue known intuitively without the burden of literal meaning. When I put my mind into the symbol space, listening to the songs on Frightened Rabbit’s “Pedestrian Verse” (Atlantic Records, 2013), I feel more connected to what I think this band is trying to do and say with their probing and desolate lyrics.
The lives lived within these 12 songs are hard. The people here struggle just to stay in place, to stay in their homes, to stay in their bodies. The voice in the song “Housing” is exhausted, longing for home, even if it’s cheaper and more hollow than dreamed for, with the “dull drum roll” of trains rolling by just outside. The voice in “Dead Now,” with his light “mined” from him, is without poetry or even civility (“And I will piss on your front porch”). Maybe the saddest voice of all is in “State Hospital,” a woman “Born into a grave” and “Thrown down the stairs/Her blood is thicker than concrete.” Lines powerfully metaphoric and yet terrifyingly connected to images you just know could be real. These lives are heroic and tragic, more often in their failure rather than in their overcoming hardship, which they rarely do. These lines hurt. They make my heart ache for the men and women who walk like ghosts through Hutchison’s voice.
Maybe it’s just been the last decade or so that we’ve all lived through, but life seems harder for almost everyone these days. We all know someone who has lost a job, a home, a family, a child, a place to feel safe. Given how far reaching this cataclysm has been, you’d think that there would be a lot more songwriters like Hutchison crafting songs as warnings, and flags to rally to. But these are hard things to face. Some artists simply can’t go there, just as some of us can’t go there. It’s risky. If you tell the truth, especially to yourself, you risk having to do something.
Still, artists are the people who give us heart to fight back, and Frightened Rabbit does that well. “Pedestrian Verse,” with its metaphors running deep into a world that’s gone, a world of real things, like books and hand tools and work you can do with your hands, is a collection of songs that inspire in spite of their dark story lines. And because of this, I see this record as much a collection of poetry or short stories as popular songs. Frightened Rabbit’s sound as a band is heroic, charged with energy and fully alive. I’ve listened to this record a dozen times, and with every listening I hear new things, feel new things. Strangely, I feel hope.
I’m still assigning new meanings to this band’s songs as much as to their symbols. You don’t have to look too far to find real people suffering. These songs make me want to do something for others. We need artists to inspire us as much as we need them to entertain us. These songs from Frightened Rabbit remind me of how much we’ve lost. They also inspire me to draw a line and say enough is enough.