Cold, calculating and too clever by half – that’s what some people say about Franz Ferdinand. Where’s the passion, the sweat, the rock’n’roll? Well, who cares? Pete Doherty does the rock’n’roll thing these days (a condition which has its downs as well as ups, as any long-suffering fan will testify). The last thing we need is Franz imploding in a ’shroom and booze blitz. No, what we music fans need – nay, deserve – is more great records. And just 18 months after their debut made them 2004’s most feted band, here comes the follow-up, titled ‘You Could Have It So Much Better’ after it clearly dawned on someone in the Franz organisation that titling it ‘Franz Ferdinand’ and giving it the same sleeve as the debut (albeit in different colours) as the band originally intended would, while cool, amount to commercial self-mutilation.
And Franz Ferdinand are too smart to do something like that. Having been round the block more times than a tramp’s dog, 33-year-old Alex Kapranos was never going to blow his last big chance. Instead, he knuckled down, so determined that the second Franz album would be out this year that he missed guitarist and co-songwriter Nick McCarthy’s wedding. The resulting record is a million miles away from the over-hasty follow-ups that hobbled former indie golden boys The Vines and BRMC’s careers, both of which sounded like collections of tracks left over from their first albums. Instead, ‘…Better’ is bigger, stranger, more complicated, but with a darkly seductive current that pulls you under for good.
The biggest change is in the production. Earlier this year, Franz Ferdinand pronounced themselves dissatisfied with the clipped, sparse sound of their debut, so brought in Mars Volta producer Rich Costey. The result is an album which radically extends the Franz musical palette. Synths burble in the background of ‘Do You Want To’, a piano echoes through ‘Fade Together’ and there are vocal effects-a-go-go on ‘This Boy’ and elsewhere. The initial effect is to make ‘…Better’ much more difficult to get into than the first album; the tunes seem overwhelmed by all the extra decoration. You need to keep listening before Franz’s strongest-ever songs snap suddenly into focus. You’ll have fallen for the fiendishly clever ‘Do You Want To’ by now, but get ready for Sad Franz on ‘Walk Away’, Wistful Franz on ‘Fade Together’ and Romantic Franz on ‘Eleanor Put Your Boots On’. The biggest departures from the first album (they’re all ballads of one stripe or another), they’re sufficiently anthemic to capture Killers fans’ hearts but with enough unexpected twists and turns to satisfy the art-rock hardcore.
Despite joking that this album was “music for girls to cry to”, ‘…Better’ still has at least one foot on the dancefloor. As well as ‘Do You Want To’, final track ‘The Outsiders’ sounds like a dislocated Blondie, while ‘I’m Your Villain’ achieves the same spacey funk David Bowie went for in his Berlin period – arguably the Rosetta Stone of all art-rock endeavours. Then there’s the frantic punk of ‘This Boy’ and the Glasgow gothic of ‘Evil And A Heathen’ and ‘You’re The Reason I’m Leaving’. Franz have also learned to rock out. The first bars of opener ‘The Fallen’ could almost be Kasabian. ‘You Could Have It So Much Better’, meanwhile, is an ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ for 2005, both in its biting guitar attack and in its lyrics, which update Mick Jagger watching a cigarette commercial with Alex viewing a “grinning goon/On my TV screen/Telling us that/It’s alright because/She wears this and/He said that and/If you get some of these/It’ll all be alright”. Like the rest of the album, it’s a call to action, not to simply sit back and accept what life is giving you, but to get out there, create and be fantastic. Franz’s greatest passion is the creative process itself.
Lyrically, things are richer than before. ‘The Fallen’ imagines a wayward friend of theirs as the Messiah (it was originally called ‘Robert Anderson Is Christ’). ‘Do You Want To’ is the chirpiest song about anal and oral sex ever (well, what else are we to make of the line “Do you want to/Want to go where I’ve never let you before”)? Drug references crop up everywhere – cocaine on ‘This Boy’, MDMA on ‘What You Meant’, heroin on ‘The Fallen’, Valium on ‘The Outsiders’, codeine on ‘Well That Was Easy’ – suggesting that planet Franz may not be as squeaky clean as previously thought, but never used for naff shock’n’roll value. ‘Eleanor
Put Your Boots On’ manages to be a touching love song without being clichéd. Then there’s ‘Walk Away’, where epic emotion is laced with self mockery and the parting of two lovers is symbolised in the Kremlin falling, Hitler laughing, and
Radio 4 being “static”.
‘You Could Have It So Much Better’? Well now we have. It’s hard to see what could stop them.