Four years since their half-hearted third album, they’re back to their sharpest, struttiest, guitar-driven best
There’s a line in ‘Fresh Strawberries’, the fifth track on Franz Ferdinand’s fourth album, that could be taken as a neat metaphor for a mid-noughties indie buzz band’s career. It goes, to a melody like Blur reworking ‘Penny Lane’: “We are fresh strawberries/A fresh burst of red strawberries/Ripe turning riper in the bowl/We will soon be rotten/We will all be forgotten/Half remembered rumours of the old”. Somewhere, a Kook is crying.
Back in 2004, Franz Ferdinand were the juiciest strawberries in the punnet. Their self-titled debut album was full of sharp, pointed tracks, their single ‘Take Me Out’ gave them a crossover hit and they briefly got a nation’s schoolchildren to take a passing interest in the history of World War I. They followed up quickly – too quickly, perhaps – with 2005’s ‘You Could Have It So Much Better’, an album titled by way of an admission of guilt. Then came a four-year wait for the half-hearted gear change of 2009’s dark, electronically tinged ‘Tonight: Franz Ferdinand’. Then nothing. For ages. Except sometimes when scanning festival line-ups in, say, Latvia, you’d spot their name on there. They seemed to have receded into that career hinterland of aimless pottering, and done so prematurely. Alex Kapranos had a food column in The Guardian long before Alex James ate some Cathedral City and thought, “I could do better than this.”
So here’s the good news: they return, four years after the misfiring ‘Tonight…’, with an album that might be their best ever. And it should be – at a mere 35 minutes long, that’s a work rate of about nine song minutes per year. But the brevity of this album reflects the fact that it’s all about focus: on details in the music, on big choruses, and, like Kapranos’ cheekbones, on carrying no fat.
It’s an album that tries not to shout ‘old school Franz are back’, even though it unmistakably signals that old school Franz are back. Lead single ‘Right Action’ is like a Best Of Franz compilation stewed down to a fine liquor – the “do do do do”s from ‘Do You Want To’, the menacing guitar from ‘Take Me Out’ and a ‘Dark Of The Matinee’ refrain. They even hired ‘Take Me Out’ director Jonas Odell to shoot a pop-video-as-constructivist-artwork promo, just like the old days.
The emphasis is also back on the guitars, whether twangy, punky, intertwining like mating snakes or jabbing you in the ribs, and on Kapranos’ arch frontman routine. The singer was always at his best when coming across like a gentlemanly Jarvis Cocker, and it’s a role he plays well here. When he sings about a suburban car-keys party in ‘Brief Encounters’, you can almost see his face pursing like Russell Brand playing a saucy vicar. “Rigid in the matrimonial superking bed”, indeed.
The lyrical conceits throughout are nothing short of lofty –the title track lifts words directly from the back of a found postcard and namechecks Karel Reisz, the Czech-born director of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Later, ‘The Universe Expanded’ tells a love story in reverse, ending on the line, “We’ll part as happy strangers from a long friendship that grew from such a love”.
Mostly though, ‘Right Thoughts…’ hinges on embracing what Franz do well and aiming to do it better. But it’s not all about looking back. With Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard joining previous collaborator Björn Yttling (of Peter Bjorn And John fame) on production duties, there’s a freshness to the sound, most notable on ‘Evil Eye’, which is, essentially Snoop Dogg’s ‘What’s My Name?’ via Rockwell’s ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ – creepy, jumpy and as funky as James Brown’s ghost.
After 35 minutes, the album finishes, and you want to play it again. The last words on closing track ‘Goodbye Lovers & Friends’ are: “This really is the end”. Don’t take it too literally: the track also says “You know I hate pop music”. Damned lies.