So I guess I have to talk about Scott Hutchison, but I don’t really want to.
The truth is that most days I am fine. But some days (fewer and fewer lately, which is good) I feel like I’m staring down into an endless dark hole of nothing. And on some of those days, I have to fight not to jump in. That’s just life with depression, and I’ve gotten used to it. But hearing about the deaths of other people who struggle with similar issues is sometimes enough to disrupt my balance. It’s hard to explain. Hearing stories like Wil Wheaton’s of working through depression and continuing to live life are like seeing a light ahead, and hearing stories like Scott Hutchison’s are like that light snapping off.
Scott Hutchison was the singer and main writer for Scottish band Frightened Rabbit. I have a complex history with them, only truly getting into their work with 2010’s The Winter of Mixed Drinks, and absolutely adoring its successor, 2013’s Pedestrian Verse. But even the albums I like are painful listens, Hutchison seemingly clawing at the edges of his own sanity, desperately looking for purchase. Their fifth record, 2016’s Painting of a Panic Attack, was so bleak and dour that I had a hard time even getting through it (I described it as “a dark cloud that the band sounds lost in”), and I don’t think I have revisited it since.
Turns out these were all warning signs. A few days ago Hutchison went missing, after some alarming messages on Twitter. A day after that, his body was found and identified. He was 36 years old, and it’s just awful. All of it. Last year we lost Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington to suicide, and every indication is that this year we have just lost Scott Hutchison to the same. I feel the same way every time, reaching back to Elliott Smith and Kurt Cobain and too many others. It rocks me off my axis, sends me towards that dark hole, and I have to talk myself back.
There isn’t much I want to say about Hutchison, partially out of respect for those who knew and loved him. But I will say this to anyone feeling like I do: Life is worth the fight. Keep fighting. And reach out for help. You are not alone. You are never alone.
* * * * *
There are few things that pull me back from the brink like music, and few bands who consistently make my world a better place like the Choir.
If you’ve been reading my silly music column for any length of time, you’re probably aware that the Choir is my favorite band. I don’t mean they’re the best band I know, or that they’re the first band I recommend to someone looking for new music. But I have been a Choir fan for 28 years now, and followed them through the ups and downs of their career, from their label days to their independent years to their current fan-funded renaissance.
More than that, as the band’s two main songwriters are constantly writing about their own lives, I feel like I have followed Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty through triumph and tragedy, through the births and childhoods and now adulthoods of their children, through love songs and prayers, to pinch the title of their best-of collection. There are very few bands I know as well as I know this one, and none that I love knowing as much as this one. Steve and Derri write with such honesty, such openness that I feel like they’ve invited me on these journeys with them, and I’m eternally grateful for that.
So when my favorite band asks me to put up money for a new album a year in advance, of course I’m on board. The last time the Choir asked for my money and my faith, they gave me Shadow Weaver, one of their finest works. It’s the perfect late-career Choir record, straightforward when it needs to be and strange whenever it can. “What You Think I Am” is a classic, the kind of song that bands making their 14th album don’t usually find waiting for them. Shadow Weaver came out nearly four years ago, and I haven’t stopped listening to it.
So of course I ponied up for Bloodshot, the Choir’s 15th album, when the band asked me to more than a year ago. I knew nothing about it except the title, and there are only a few bands that have earned that measure of trust from me. I’ve had the download of Bloodshot for a week now – the CD will follow in a month or so – and I’ve listened probably 15 times. Everything else has taken a back seat. Usually I wait until albums like this are available for the public to buy, because I want anyone inclined to pick it up from my review to be able to. But I literally haven’t listened to anything else this week, so you get to read my thoughts right now.
The first thing I want to say is that I am so grateful for a new Choir record. This one is as honest and powerful as anything they’ve done. It’s also a rawer and more difficult listen, depicting broken and shattered relationships and the need for forgiveness, not just of others but of oneself. It is, in many ways, the most straight-ahead record they have made, the most down-to-earth. So many of their albums leaven the pain of life with the joy and hope of faith, but this one stays with its feet on the ground.
That’s not to say there isn’t joy here, because there certainly is. The sequencing of the album puts a lot of the more painful songs in the first half, and leaves the romps for the back third, and the effect is like going through hell to get to the promise of redemption. But it’s a tough record to process, which might be why the music is the most earthy ever on a Choir record as well. Choir albums are weird – they’re known for taking catchy songs and producing them in off-kilter ways, letting bassist Tim Chandler have free reign to sound like a rubber elephant beneath Daugherty’s reverbed guitar paintings and Hindalong’s exotic percussion.
Not so here. Bloodshot is a straight-up rock record, for the most part, with some country overtones. The soundscape element of the band is still here, but subtler, present mainly in Daugherty’s guitar tones. Hindalong plays a kit throughout, banging out 4/4 grooves. Chandler barely sounds like Chandler, playing simple bass lines. I hate to use this word, but this record sounds normal, more so than the Choir ever has. Part of that likely has to do with the fact that it’s the first one since 1984 to be produced by someone outside the band: Nashville pro Stephen Leiweke. He incorporates string sections and session pianists, and the whole thing sounds mixed for radio.
This takes some getting used to, but given the raw nature of these songs, perhaps Bloodshot might have been too difficult to listen to otherwise. As it is, the songs go down like sugar-coated pills, more pleasant on the outside than they really are. Opener “Bloodshot Eyes” sets a somber tone, a sad acoustic strum giving way to one of Hindalong’s most poetic choruses: “The moon is in the water, the sun is on the rise, you’re every bit as beautiful through bloodshot eyes.” You can just see the two people at the song’s center, staying up until dawn, crying and talking things through.
This is merely the first of a series of songs about frayed and tearing love. The great “Birds, Bewildered” finds those same people letting each other go, and hoping for the best for each other. “We can’t untake bad medicine we swallow,” Daugherty sings (beautifully). “If I could I would rewind the hands of time.” “Only Reasons” is one of the best lyrics Hindalong and Daugherty have ever written (and the melody is lovely too), a mea culpa so devastating it hurts to listen to. “I don’t believe you should forgive me for my treason, the man who hurt you was no stranger to myself, I won’t offer bad excuses, just bad reasons…” It all comes down in “House of Blues,” burned to the ground: “Not gonna live in a house of blues, you know I love you way too much to die here with you…”
I’m making this sound like a heavy record, and it is, but the songs are so catchy that it’s not oppressive. It’s clear that the band’s heart is in these darker songs this time, though, because they miss the mark on some of the more joyous ones. (And it’s so rare that the Choir misses the mark that it’s notable.) “Californians On Ice” is a silly bit of observational humor that never sounds like anything but a b-side. “The Way You Always Are,” sung by Hindalong, is almost gratingly simple, a campfire tune saved by its funny-yet-true lyrics. “We’ve Got the Moon” is another simple one, and by the time it rolls around, the earthy sound starts to feel homogenous.
But that’s OK, because the Choir does turn out three absolute feel-good classics, more than fans of any band have a right to expect. “Summer Rain” is a delightful single, one that, in a just world, would be setting the airwaves on fire this summer. This is pure Choir – a driving beat, some atmospheric yet rocking guitar from Daugherty, and a chorus that could repeat for hours without boring you. Almost as good is “Magic,” one of the pure rock songs here, which finds Daugherty, Chandler and Hindalong locking into a sun-through-the-clouds groove. (And there’s a reference to Will Ferrell in Elf. For real.)
But the top prize for me goes to the finale, and the beautiful ending to the album’s wounded-heart narrative. “The Time Has Come” is a shimmering anthem of forgiveness, even the most difficult kind: “We can’t undo the damage done, the day is new, here comes the sun, the time has come to forgive your sorry self…” Hindalong cuts to the bone here (“The man of sorrows dances on the ocean, I’m still too faint of heart to leave the boat…”), but offers generous helpings of hope as well: “A song of mercy resonates inside you, listen close, be still, live and learn, red blood flows through your veins like healing rivers, redemption every time the planet turns.”
There’s a simplicity to this song too, but every element of the production sounds like their lives depended on it. As the last chapter in a story that moves from regret and pain to love and grace, it’s spot on. But I still find Bloodshot as a whole to be hit or miss, and I think part of that has to do with the physical sound of it, with the band’s tendency to play everything straight here. By the time we’re halfway through, I want it to sound more like the Choir, or like the Choir I’ve known and loved. Most of these songs are very good, and the through line of the album is magnificent. I just wished they had taken a bit more time to find a weirder way into these tunes.
But half a dozen classics is more than enough for me. I’m over-the-moon happy that this exists. How many bands get to their 15th album, let alone get there riding a creative head of steam this impressive? We’re not nearly done yet this year, either. Daugherty has a solo album, The Color of Dreams, coming next month, and the band has just launched a Kickstarter to record an acoustic version of their great Kissers and Killers album from 1993 (and to put the original on vinyl at last). There’s really never been a better time to be a Choir fan, and should they ask for my money again to make album 16, I will gladly give it.
Next week, some pretty tunes from Darlingside and Ray Lamontagne. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.