Release Date: Feb 9, 2018
Record label: Domino
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
It is actually something of a surprise that Franz Ferdinand‘s fifth album isn’t titled Last Men Standing. For they, after all, appear to be the remaining survivors of the new wave of guitar music that they helped to usher in when they appeared in 2003. The Futureheads long ago split up, as did The Rakes, while The Young Knives seem to have settled into 'indefinite hiatus' status.
Scottish indie rockers Franz Ferdinand exploded onto the music scene with their global hit "Take Me Out" in 2004. In the 14 years since, they've released three albums, lost some popularity, and even lost founding member and keyboardist/guitarist Nick McCarthy. But what the remaining members haven't lost is their appetite for creating energetic and dynamic rock that fits as comfortably on the dance floor as it does in the rock arena.
In 2004, it was impossible to go to an indie disco and not see the place slayed by Franz Ferdinand's monstrous second single, 'Take Me Out'. That track, and the self-titled album it came from, was a glam, pop, art-rock gamechanger that turned frontman Alex Kapranos, guitarist Nick McCarthy, bassist Bob Hardy and drummer Paul Thomson into one of the UK's biggest and most exciting bands. In the decade and a half since, the Scots have released three more giant-selling albums, headlined festivals and sold out arenas the world over.
Better still, "Take Me Out", the arch art-poppers unerring, sophisticated giant of a breakthrough single, was not only on the lips of the indie kids but taken straight to heart by the casual radio-listening public. Franz were that rarest of beasts, a highly preened and principled indie act with massive crossover potential. A band that tried, according to ancient-by-noughties-indie-standards frontman Alex Kapranos, to make music for girls to dance to.
It's good. It's clean. It's proper. In other words, Always Ascending is full of proper (1970s) tunes and (1980s) hooks and proper (1990s) beautiful repetition and affectionate little steals from fellow Scots Altered Images ('You could be happy' on the livewire Lois Lane). And, as ever, the songs ….
Scotland's belovedly louche dance-rock heroes invoke Bowie's "Fashion" and Talking Heads' "Houses in Motion" on the title-track single here, which scans as both old-school MDMA clubbing ode and a meta-narrative about making music for tweakers. Ah, youth! It's a return to form the band never really lost, and if the quiet bits drag, the wit's sharper than ever. "Lois Lane" waxes tragicomic re: journalistic idealism - "it's bleak!" makes a fabulous party chant, who knew? - while "Huck and Jim" takes down Americana and "magazine bohemians" with fetchingly wack rapping (see, we're not all thin-skinned).
Though Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos refers to the Glasgow band's fifth album, Always Ascending, as “aggressive sonic experimentation,” the group doesn't venture especially far from its established dance-punk formula. The album is less guitar-driven—perhaps a result of rhythm guitarist and co-songwriter Nick McCarthy's exit from the band—in favor of increased bass and synth and ramped-up disco and funk elements. But a disco-rock beat has always run through the group's music.
It seems almost a lifetime ago now when Franz Ferdinand, when releasing their monumental 2004 debut, were legitimately one of the biggest bands in the world. In reality, it's at least a decade since that time, which since has seen the band dutifully release two 'other' albums to little fanfare in 2009's Tonight: Franz Ferdinand and 2013's Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action. However, their 2015 collaboration album with LA art-pop band Sparks saw a renewed vigour and interest in the Glasgow band, which has given their fifth record, Always Ascending their greatest deal of hype since 2005's You Could Have It So Much Better.
Given their avuncular status in British rock, it's easy to forget that Franz Ferdinand swept into the previous decade as indie-rock insurgents. Driving their self-titled 2004 debut was a desire to "make records that girls can dance to," a superficial pronouncement with subtext: Here was a band to reject British indie's boys-club culture, slyly mock scrappy romantics like the Libertines, and establish a smart, sexy, metropolitan counterpart. Soon after their arrival, two albums by rising bands refashioned Franz-ian principles to broaden the UK indie-rock scene.
If Franz Ferdinand released a 'Best Of…', it might be one of the best 'Best Of's. You can't argue with fifteen years of undeniable indie bangers, crammed with theatrical lyrics and glam, camp riffs. Just ask anyone who's ever tried to be Alex Kapranos in a karaoke booth. If you actually are Alex Kapranos, though, we'd have understood if you'd chosen to relax a bit.
Produced by one-time Phoenix and Cassius producer Philippe Zdar, Franz's fifth album is a record with smoother edges, with a gloss that never intrudes, but certainly gives them a new lease of life. Still as wry and acutely aware of their own limitations and strengths, you need only listen to the title track to feel they wanted to challenge the old FF ways with this album. Indeed, the song does continually ascend, like many of their earliest singles seemed to, and the repeated cry of "never gonna resolve" comes across as both the dumbest line and one of the most philosophical simultaneously.
It has now been a decade and a half since Franz Ferdinand's debut record, an LP that, however unfashionable the post-new rock revolution aesthetic of guitar-swamped indie might sound now, stands the test of time. Among the swathe of identikit indie rockers that surrounded them there was a certain something else underpinning Alex Kapranos and co - a sense of intelligent wit and knowing manipulation of imagery that made them much, much more interesting than their peers. True, the only competitors of their size in the field of hit-machine mainstream rock consisted essentially of The Kaiser Chiefs and Razorlight, but Franz Ferdinand's blend of Dadaist quirk and European cool was masterly in its own right.