The Midnight Organ Fight Turns 10
“We just need to get warmed up here before we get into the real business of the evening,” Scott Hutchison said, onstage in Manhattan in late February, by way of explaining the couple of songs Frightened Rabbit had just played that weren’t from The Midnight Organ Fight. The business in question was playing that album from front to back, a conceit the band entertained for a brief tour of smaller venues than they’d usually play. And the occasion for that tour was the approaching anniversary of their beloved sophomore album, which turns 10 this Sunday.
In recent years, it’s become a bit of a trend for bands to play their albums the entire way through — particularly older artists breaking out the classics when they’re many years removed from their creative prime, particularly younger indie bands breaking out “the classics” in what usually appears, somewhat unnervingly, as a necessity of commerce more so than personal engagement. (See: Interpol’s random decision to mark Turn On The Bright Lights’ 15th anniversary, or Bloc Party’s compromised plan to bring out Silent Alarm in its entirety without its original lineup.) Mercifully, Frightened Rabbit’s endeavor didn’t fall into either category.
Ten years after The Midnight Organ Fight, Frightened Rabbit play the largest venues of their career. They’re signed to a major. They’ve made a lot of great music since, with plenty of songs as enduring as those on The Midnight Organ Fight. For a group that was never at the forefront of the indie conversation, who were always steadily slugging away on the side, they’ve done well for themselves.
But in ways an artist can’t quite control — and in ways I don’t think they’d quite rail against — their second album still looms large over their discography. Perhaps you’re a Frightened Rabbit fan who still feels it’s their best work. (It certainly still has some of their best songs.) But one thing you can’t argue with is that it’s one of those albums that means an overwhelmingly great deal to those fans, coming from one of those early-career sets of circumstances you’re unlikely to ever recreate.
The band knows that, and the tour felt like a good-natured nod to the fans who’ve been along for the whole ride, a thank you for picking up a Frightened Rabbit album 10 years ago and sticking with them through all the shit since. For his part, Scott Hutchison was his typically affable self at the two Midnight Organ Fight shows in New York. “As we all know now, that refrain was a fucking lie,” he quipped after spitting the final line of the second song on the album, “I Feel Better”: “This is the last song I’ll write about you.” He finished the thought, even though everyone did know: “There was a whole fucking album.”
By 2008, the image of a sad, drunk, bearded white man with a guitar was already a pernicious archetype within the “hipster” era. But though they’ve never been the biggest name on the block, Frightened Rabbit are a band who have accrued almost only good will from those that have noticed them. They avoided being lumped into any negative eyeroll-inducing stereotypes, they avoided being consigned to any one mini-trend of the indie’s ’00s ascent.
The Midnight Organ Fight was lauded upon its release, but it was never positioned as one of the definitive releases of the era. It might not be an iconic classic, but it is a fervently adored cult classic. All of these things matter. All of these things factor into who the band are, the effect of revisiting The Midnight Organ Fight this year, and the fact that this tortured album has remained such a genial presence a decade after it first appeared.
There’s a whole lineage of Scottish indie that’s always existed alongside bigger movements in the US or UK. Frightened Rabbit were part of a moment in their homeland, touring with acts like the Twilight Sad, having peers in the form of We Were Promised Jetpacks. But there was something very unique happening on The Midnight Organ Fight. Scott Hutchison, alongside his brother Grant on drums and guitarist Billy Kennedy, crafted a sound that managed to meld melodic cues from Scottish folk with a ragged indie-rock passion. Back then, he already displayed a proclivity for anthemic moments that begged for bigger rooms and bigger budgets, but the charm of the album was how welcoming it felt despite the deep sadness it portrayed. It’s rare that an album could be as raw and scrappy as The Midnight Organ Fight yet also textured, layered, orchestrated.
(One cousin that comes to mind is the National’s 2005 almost-breakthrough Alligator. In many ways, Frightened Rabbit have often felt like a more inebriated, more conversational Scottish answer to the National, and this doesn’t seem accidental. Aside from the fact that Scott claims them as an influence, there’s some shared DNA there, considering that Peter Katis was the producer behind Alligator and its followup Boxer as well as The Midnight Organ Fight. Then Frightened Rabbit teamed up with the National’s Aaron Dessner for their fifth album, 2016’s Painting Of A Panic Attack.)
Naturally, as with many great albums worth revisiting years down the line, it comes down to the songwriting. The Midnight Organ Fight is where Scott proved himself to be a special talent, able to dance from gut-punch melancholia to self-laceration alternatively wry and depressed, to working his way into lyrics that unfolded unexpectedly with as much dry wit as wasted 20-something almost-wisdom.
As he’s detailed in a few recent retrospectives, Scott was in a very specific place during the conception of The Midnight Organ Fight. Fresh out of art school, living in a shitty tiny apartment, working odd jobs. Trying and failing to break into the music industry, despite a few promising chances at nudging the door open. Young, hungry, dying to locate any confirmation that toiling away on this work was worth it at all, that it would connect with anyone outside. That is: He was in that place of the listless man in his 20s, trying to find his way and with plenty of demons to exhale. That is: The Midnight Organ Fight comes from one of those early-career sets of circumstances you’re unlikely to ever recreate.
And of course, there was the big one. The album has always been known as a brutal document of an on-and-off breakup that spans several years. (Some of the material here actually predates Frightened Rabbit’s 2006 debut Sing The Greys.) It’s a depiction of a long-term relationship in slow-motion, push-and-pull disintegration. But it isn’t exactly Scott being lovelorn and pining after being dumped; as he’s recently clarified, he’s the one who ended it.
Maybe that’s what elevates The Midnight Organ Fight beyond so much other sad man indie rock. There’s a complexity to the perspective, a series of deeply personal vignettes of two people coming in and out of each other’s orbits when they should probably be avoiding each other as if their lives depended on it. There’s a complexity to the end of it all being his responsibility, and the destruction that decision leaves with him. There’s a complexity with how it traces the blame and desires for both sides of these small little wars, the way Scott turns the guns on himself more than he does on his former partner.
The end result was an album that captured a particular chapter of young adulthood in all its confusion, lust, despondence, fury, yearning, bile, and searching towards something resembling meaning. At the time, you could’ve mistaken The Midnight Organ Fight for being adjacent to the more twee corners of the indie sphere: There was the band name, for starters, and the title’s maybe-cutesy wordiness in referring to sex. All that is undercut by how real Scott was willing to get, how viciously honest and dark he was willing to go. It’s also undercut by the bluntness of some of the lyrics therein.
Next to the relationship narrative, The Midnight Organ Fight is a drunk, drunk album, with characters constantly drowning something, or going home with each other when they certainly shouldn’t be. It has pick-up lines as charming as “I’m drunk/ I’m drunk/ And you’re probably on pills/ If we’ve both got the same diseases/ It’s irrelevant, girl” or “Let’s pretend/ I’m attractive and then/ You won’t mind, you can twist for a while,” quickly followed by “Twist and whisper the wrong name/ I don’t care and nor do my ears.”
In one of those recent retrospectives, Scott actually relays an anecdote about the night he was so excited to show his bandmates the newly-demoed “My Backwards Walk” that he got too hammered and vomited on himself as soon as they got to the studio. “I suppose that sums it up rather well,” he remembers. “The process of writing the album was the equivalent of being sick on yourself then picking through the bits of carrot and sweetcorn to find interesting shapes and tiny colorful items that you didn’t know could exist in the bile and lining of a stomach.”
If that sounds like a desperate attempt to find something beautiful in a whole lot of ugliness, well, that’s exactly what The Midnight Organ Fight was. The album is full of fucked up people going through fucked-up cycles and doing fucked-up things to and with each other. But the strength of Scott’s songs, the bareness and cleverness of his lyrics, meant that none of it sounded simply like wallowing. Somehow, this became an album you wanted to spend time with, as if you were both at a pub venting about everything that was falling apart in your lives.
The parameters are set from the start, in The Midnight Organ Fight’s fan-favorite opener “The Modern Leper.” “Well is that you in front of me?/ Coming back for even more of exactly the same/ You must be a masochist/ To love a modern leper on his last leg,” Scott sings in the chorus. You never really glimpse the good times too clearly on this album. From the start, everything’s broken, people are already at the stage where they keep trying to make something function that is obviously beyond repair.
There are a lot of places where Scott’s lyrics are banal, dirty, cutting. But thanks to that Scottish accent, and the sweatily hungover frenzy with which he delivers those words, he got away with lines that you’d swear couldn’t work on paper, or you’d at least think shouldn’t bear the long-lasting emotive impact they have. Most infamously, there’s the recurring refrain in “Keep Yourself Warm”: “It takes more/ Than fucking someone you don’t know/ To keep warm.” That’s part of the chorus. That’s the big line as the song surges into its huge ending. That is, these are the words you’re supposed to sing along to. As far as anthemic litanies go, it seems insane. (And Katis said as much when they were in the studio.) And yet, it works. People do sing along to it. Loudly.
That’s the lasting power of The Midnight Organ Fight. The reason people have some inherent emotional investment in it. It might bring you back to your worst nights, your worst phases. But as these things go, in writing his way towards catharsis, Scott offered listeners that, too. Many of the songs here crest and crash, then roar their way back up. “The Modern Leper” makes its way from acoustic confessional to Grant’s thundering drums and a chorus that moves from incredulous to trying to find the possibility in starting again. The more restrained “My Backwards Walk” concludes with another unlikely singalong moment with Scott’s “You’re the shit/ And I’m knee-deep in it” refrain. Other songs, like “I Feel Better” and “Fast Blood,” rush forward as if trying to outrun themselves and the people inside.
But the other reason this album hit people that way, the reason people hold it close to their hearts 10 years on, is that Scott did manage to wrangle real beauty out of the gnarlier, grosser aspects of relationships — the toxic symbiosis, the bad sex, the strain of trying to maintain love between two people who simply shouldn’t be together. Part of that beauty comes in those catchy, emphatic rock tracks. But there’s also the plaintive “Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms” and “Old Old Fashioned.” There’s the remarkable closer “Floating In The Forth” — yes, technically “Who’d You Kill Now?” comes after, but “Floating In The Forth” is the real conclusion here — that ends the album with both its lowest and most hopeful moment: walking to the brink of suicide, and then stepping back.
Those last couple songs aren’t just aesthetically pretty, but they also hint at how The Midnight Organ Fight becomes a moving work as it unfolds. In most of these tracks, it doesn’t come across like the narrators are consciously looking for redemption, but sometimes they stumble headlong into it anyway. The weird power of that anti-chorus line in “Keep Yourself Warm” is that while it might dwell on past mistakes, its resolution is to look for something more, something beyond a few additional late nights out and meaningless hookups. Who knows what exactly leads to the proclamation of “I think I’ll save suicide for another year” at the end of “Floating In The Forth,” but the fact is Scott gets there.
In that sense, “Heads Roll Off” has always felt like the pivotal turning point in the album. It remains one of their finest and most adored compositions, partially for its catchiness and partially for the effortless way in which it keeps tumbling forward and growing and growing. None of the other Midnight Organ Fight songs move in quite the same way. “Heads Roll Off” doesn’t contort and collapse and then rise back up like so many of its companions do. It is one, unwavering charge of forward momentum — as if, for the first time, the band isn’t running away from something or wrestling with themselves, but chasing some revelation that’s just over there, waiting to be realized. And then, finally, at the song’s end, Scott sings: “While I’m alive/ I’ll make tiny changes to Earth.” There’s something else out there besides this one disastrous relationship, besides all the lost nights. You can survive that. And then maybe there’s some small good you can do while you’re here. It’s a personal moment of peace and clarity, and it sends shockwaves through the rest of The Midnight Organ Fight.
It’s a rare album, even amongst the more famous ones that might get played in full live on some anniversary tour or another, that would inspire a whole crowd to sing along to every word of every one of its tracks. At those Midnight Organ Fight shows in New York, that’s what happened. At every past Frightened Rabbit show I’ve witnessed, that’s what happened whenever one of the old Midnight Organ Fight favorites appeared. Frightened Rabbit have that kind of fanbase, the ones who’ll belt out those climactic refrains in “Heads Roll Off” and “Keep Yourself Warm” but also woo-woo along to the guitar break in “Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms.”
At the first of those shows, Scott reflected on how the album organically connected with a wide array of listeners. “A handful of people bought it, and shared it with their friends. I don’t think anyone was spoon-fed,” he said, before adding the requisite sardonic denouement, “Who wants to be spoon-fed that shit? I got some thick super sadness, you want some?” That sort of bemusing self-deprecation is on-brand for him, but it’s also telling. Frightened Rabbit have that sort of fanbase, and have this album people remain so devoted to, because they gave them something they needed. It’s a deeply human, visceral album. Maybe it soundtracked a period in your life as dire as the one Scott catalogues here, and you have a specific emotional attachment to it as a result. It’s certainly one of those albums.
Yet there’s a potency to it years later, for other reasons. “It’s quite amazing how happy a really sad album can make you, to each their own,” Scott joked at that same show. That’s the thing about The Midnight Organ Fight. In the moment, it has that feeling of the friend on the barstool next to you, commiserating about the mess you’re in. And maybe you didn’t know it at the time, or maybe none of us knew it at the time, and I’d guess Scott definitely didn’t know it at the time, but the album won’t settle for just that. Ten years on, the loudest part of The Midnight Organ Fight isn’t all its transgressions and travails, or your own that it echoed. The loudest part is where the album decides it’s had enough of that, and the fact that we’re all still here, 10 years later, still hearing that moment and knowing life sorts itself out. Knowing that you survived it, and there’s always more tiny changes to make.