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Resurrecting Scott Hutchison

Reflections on suicide, survival, and the new tribute album to Scott Hutchison.
Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit performs during day three of the Splendour in the Grass music festival on August 1st, 2010, in Woodford, Australia.

Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit performs during day three of the Splendour in the Grass music festival on August 1st, 2010, in Woodford, Australia.

Friend, you might not be able to relate, but there is no easy way to explain that there are days when I haven't wanted to be alive. It can be especially difficult if I'm trying to explain this to people who do want to be alive that day, or have maybe never had a day they haven't wanted to be alive. I wish there were a better way to talk about this feeling I have. Instead, I talk about how good I feel on the days I want to be alive—truly alive, showering strangers with smiles as I move through the world.

I have more of those days than not now. But I recall the feeling of not wanting to be alive, and how it can sometimes last more than a day. Sometimes it can last a whole season, dark and galloping with no end in sight. I say haven't wanted to be alive because I don't necessarily mean I had a desire to chase death. It was more a hunger for silence, for some comfortable immovability. An existence that doesn't require hurling oneself through the jaws of grief, or trauma, or anxiety.

I had one such season back in the late winter of 2008, and it did smoothly tumble into the spring, when I could no longer blame it on the sharp knives of ice hanging from the top of my windows, making the outside world seem unbearable. It's a lot harder to make excuses to stay inside when the leaves on the trees unfold, newly green.

The problem was that I couldn't go out into the world without making peace with a corner of the world that had vanished. My pal's grave had no headstone. I couldn't find it if I wanted to, which I guess is how he'd have liked it. No awkward conversations with a block of stone, no trips to a cemetery with flowers on anniversaries or memorials. Something about the lack of ceremony made the reality of loss feel plain. Somewhere there is a swatch of grass, and a body decomposing underneath.

In that season, the band Frightened Rabbit released its second album, The Midnight Organ Fight. Lead singer Scott Hutchison was always the kind of lyricist who sounded like he was delivering a direct report from his own messy interior, and never more so than through Midnight Organ Fight's tapestry of 14 difficult, terrifyingly touchable tracks. The album lays all its weight on a listener and never lets up until the final airy snaps fade at the close of the final track, "Who'd You Kill Now?"

It wasn't just the weight of the album that struck you; it was also the intimacy it demanded. On his records, Scott Hutchison often sounded like someone you just happened to pull up a stool next to at some dive with no working juke, and a bartender who didn't care all that much for conversation. Someone who would talk to you for a while because he didn't feel like he had any choice other than to deliver the good news of love and the bad news of loss, and the regular news of everything in between.

In the spring of 2008, I needed The Midnight Organ Fight to lift all the heavy things I could not lift myself. I needed it to promise me not that things would get better, but that the gray of it all would become a new part of who I was, and I'd grow with it, if not beyond it. It was one of the first albums that trained me to prioritize honesty over hope, and I clung to it in the months I ignored phone calls and the echo of my doorbell. I clung to it on the days when sunlight pushed its shoulders against my dark curtains.

Scott Hutchison is dead now, and that is another thing that I don't think I'll ever stop being sad about. I wrote about Scott last year after he passed—about what it is to carry so much of your own shit, and the burden of helping others as they carry theirs. Scott is gone, and after his death, a bunch of musicians got together and released Tiny Changes, an album of covers and reinterpretations of The Midnight Organ Fight. It is fitting that this was the album chosen, in some ways, to resurrect. Among many other things, Organ Fight was, at its core, a break-up album: an album about clinging to the fading strands of something that was once concrete.

Tiny Changes is doing similar work, reconstructing Scott's songs and pushing them through new sonic ideas. There's Ben Gibbard's whispery, ghostlike version of "Keep Yourself Warm"; Julien Baker slowly removing the bandage from a wound you'd forgotten about on her version of "The Modern Leper"; the Manchester Orchestra working the frantic, accumulating machinery of "My Backwards Walk." Many of the songs are good, and all of them are at least interesting. All were recorded by people who felt some connection to Scott or his music, and who took to the task of restructuring his sounds and his language in the most caring ways they knew how.

In listening to this album, I've been thinking about the purpose a cover serves when the original artist isn't around anymore to hear it—beyond its value in introducing an old song or an old voice to a new audience, of course. When I finally did make it out of the house during that wretched season in 2008, I dragged myself to my dead pal's old childhood bedroom. I tried on his old shirts to see if any of them fit, and an old jacket with shitty patches we'd haphazardly sewn on. I left the old records and CDs, and I left the collection of books, and I left all the other things his mother had packed up and begged his friends to come and grab so that she wouldn't have to be reminded of her son who wasn't coming home again. I took some shirts and a jacket, and I wore them, even when the weather didn't call for it. I sweated through his old jean jacket all through the summer of 2008, not as a tribute, but because I was offering the world he was no longer in a look at something tangible he'd left behind, affixed to a new body. I was a different version of his old self, one who wore his jacket and got to speak his name out loud when people asked where I got it from. He got to live in the air of any room I walked into, weighed down with sweat, but not entirely weighed down with grief.

This, too, was a type of cover. A reshaping of an original look or feeling from someone who is no longer alive to reshape it themselves. The covers on Tiny Changes don't require a listener to have known or loved Scott or his music. They simply require a listener who knows the experience of missing someone, and of wanting to find a way to bring that person back for just a little while. Even in other people's voices, I was reminded what it was about Scott's lyrics that had dragged me out of my small, self-fashioned hell a decade ago. The lyrics are still unforgiving, funny, self-deprecating, not promising anything except that we've each got a day to decide to get through, until we don't anymore.

There are many different ways of making a break-up album. Some recount what it is to love someone and then lose them, and others tell the story of what it is to fall out of love with someone. The Midnight Organ Fight asked the hardest questions an album like that can ask: What it is to want to break up with the world, despite all of the people in it who love you? Tiny Changes tries its best to mourn the worst possible answer to that question—at least for anyone who loved Scott.

I don't know if I'll ever stop being sad about Scott. I'll probably never stop being sad about Prince, or about Whitney Houston. I've already written about the roses I'll undoubtedly lay at the feet of Bruce Springsteen or Stevie Wonder. But they all felt, and feel, like deities. I'll never stop being sad about Scott because he wasn't a god. He was too openly flawed to be what people project onto their gods, and he wouldn't have wanted to be one anyway. All of Scott's miracles were quiet, and close to his chest. I hate to talk about survival as though it, alone, is a miracle. But I also hate to pretend I haven't woken up on a morning, thanking something or someone imaginary that I made it through the day before. I'll never stop being sad about Scott because what got the better of him might have once have gotten the better of me.

I can't promise that it won't still, because none of us who know that specific pain can promise that. But I can promise that I'm working on it. I can promise that today looked good because the heat finally sulked off to another corner of the world, and so the fireflies came back out to dance last night, and a good patch of them settled over a sprawling field of yellow flowers as tall as I am. And in a dark field, small slivers of briefly illuminated yellow grinned out from the black. I can promise that tomorrow feels like it might be good too. That, yes, the world is melting and collapsing in irreversible ways. Yes, I cannot keep all of my friends safe and I can't undo the long trajectory of harm inflicted on the universe. But I'd like to stay alive and keep trying to make my own corner of this tragic spinning pebble as clean as I can. Some of this, surely, is for and because of people like Scott Hutchison. I'm sad Scott is gone, and I am going to miss him, maybe forever.

I met Scott once, in 2011, when I was a young, arrogant, foolish music journalist. He was as generous, thoughtful, and patient as everyone says he was. I wasn't used to talking to musicians about anything worthwhile, and I asked all the wrong questions. About suffering for art, and the romantics of pain and loss. About wearing grief like a joyful badge of honor instead of slogging through its treacherous and never-ending forest. Scott was kind and gave great answers to my shit questions. And I wrote the wrong thing back then. I wrote all about tragedy as beauty, and not about what the songs meant, or how they'd carried me on their back when I needed them to. I wrote the wrong thing, surely, because I imagined I'd have a lifetime to do it again, to go back and get right whatever I might have gotten wrong the first time. A cover song isn't exactly a do-over as much as it is a newer and cleaner offering. Another door of memory through which a person can walk. I didn't find the words to do right by Scott when he was still with us. I've remade the language the best way I can.


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