Rebounding from the emotional morass of their last album, Frightened Rabbit have emerged defiant, but more than a little muddled. The sense of confusion is palpable; as its title connotes, The Winter Of Mixed Drinks inhabits the confused thematic middle ground between abuse and recovery. Lacking the spleen and bilious knack they displayed on The Midnight Organ Fight, Frightened Rabbit have failed to imbue Winter with as intense a personal charge.
Not that The Winter Of Mixed Drinks is generic, or at least not fatally so. Its disappointments were inevitable but, in a way, just as recognizable as The Midnight Organ Fight’s catharsis. Scott Hutchinson, Frightened Rabbit’s frontman, has mentioned the less personal nature of the new material. The deliberate effort to distance oneself from past relationships will be a familiar enough sentiment for most listeners. At times, the emotional opacity of the lyrics is what makes the album feel frustrating. Departing from “the North Sea of [his] mind,” Hutchinson finds himself in less stark — though less defined — terrain.
The musical changes, both in band lineup and production, also adds to the lack of familiarity. Most of the changes are for the better; the addition of Gordon Skene gives Frightened Rabbit the extra oomph needed to push their sound into arena-rock territory. On lead single “Nothing Like You,” the band sounds as impassioned as ever, while shedding the sad-sackery of their older material. The production sheen fits the rollicking tempo well, making an unexpected anthem out of typically morose components. “All the pain almost as painful as ever but/ Something in me was not the same,” Hutchinson sings, providing further reasons to love the band, while reminding listeners that there’s still something off about this whole venture.
Despite these vigorous moments, too often The Winter Of Mixed Drinks falls prey to indistinguishable mid-tempo material. “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” provides the record its central conceit, but is lyrically repetitive in one appearance; the acoustic reprise on “Man/Bag Of Sand” adds little to the experience. But even within some of the weaker songs, Frightened Rabbit find ways to satisfy their devoted fanbase. “The Loneliness and The Scream” doesn’t go anywhere at first, but ultimately meanders into a gratifying, shouted refrain. It might be lazy songwriting, but it’s also inviting enough to invalidate those complaints. “Skip The Youth” suffers from the same flaws; the song starts with a discordant, wordless intro, before building into a rousing, exhilarating conclusion. Its predictability doesn’t preclude it from being one of the best songs in Frightened Rabbit’s limited catalog.
It’s only fitting that an album about relearning to make the right decisions is rife with some misguided choices. The Winter Of Mixed Drinks isn’t a bad album, just an inherently unsatisfying one. Hopefully it’s a step in the right direction, musically and — especially for Hutchinson — emotionally.