An unfortunate myth about artists: the more miserable, the better. From Poe to Moz, we like our creative minds pensive, brooding, as drenched in dread as possible. And when an artist achieves success – grasps at contentment – the fan base is quick to revolt (e.g. Rivers Cuomo post-Pinkerton). Frightened Rabbit enjoyed critical success for The Midnight Organ Fight, a self-destructively gloomy record recounting songwriter Scott Hutchinson’s messy break-up and subsequent months of couch surfing. By his own admission, Hutchinson’s life has since improved tremendously, and The Winter of Mixed Drinks reflects this. But, contrary to the myth, the band’s newfound optimism brings with it vigor and poeticism beyond their previous efforts.
The tight pop noisiness of The Midnight Organ Fight has been slit open at the seams, releasing a vibrant sonic wash. Throughout the record this wave recedes and returns, ensuring a dynamic and cohesive sound. On “Things” the wave is in full force as Hutchinson begins to brood on the artifacts of his past. But with a rattle of drums and an organ hum he realizes: “I didn’t need these things.” These are the band’s first steps into the sunlight, and they sound more passionate than ever. The album is permeated with this spirit of abandoning the unpleasant, choosing adventure instead: in “Swim Until You Can’t See Land,” Hutchinson gives up staring at the sea to dive into it; on “Not Miserable,” he acknowledges his dark roots but insists on moving on, even though the band’s old tunes will “sing of history now.”
It’s easy to see why Hutchinson would feel the need to go right out and say it. Despite a distinct sense of joy in the composition and execution of these songs, they’re not without moments of lyrical darkness. The difference: here each bit of sorrow is tempered by a more important optimism – loneliness is mentioned only on the way to the beautiful scream that negates it; an animalistic struggle turns out to be the very confrontation Hutchinson needed.
The more I listen to this album, the more it arranges itself into a narrative arc: the decision to abandon the transient physical world (“Things”), escape into the sea (“Swim Until You Can’t See Land”), a bloody battle (“The Wrestle”), reminiscence of times past (“Nothing Like You”), realization that the present is great (“Not Miserable”/”Living in Colour”), a return to land to lead a new kind of life (the heart-twistingly gorgeous “Yes, I Would”). Probably it’s not that simple. But the essentials are there. This album is a glorious rebirth, a thoughtful and heartfelt moving-on. Even with their worst times – and, so the myth claims, their best source material – behind them, this band still has a lot to say.