Scottish indie royalty Franz Ferdinand’s careers in the years that spanned their 2004 debut and 2009’s Tonight: Franz Ferdinand cemented their ability to consistently play around with a sound that was both ever-evolving and wholly unique to the band. Yes, it was indie rock, but it’s always been imbued with a danceable, energetic spirit that blurred the lines between pop and rock more effectively than acts who would normally self-identify as pop-rock. All this to say that Franz Ferdinand’s batting average was, up until 2010, nigh unparalleled by other European acts.
That is, until 2013’s Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions. Which, at 10 songs long, only left us a handful of memorable tracks. “Evil Eye,” “Goodbye Lovers & Friends,” and “Love Illumination” being the most noteworthy. Needless to say, Right Thoughts was a far cry from the intense success of the band’s first three records, the second of which seemed now to taunt us by having promised that You Could Have It So Much Better.
Even worse, Always Ascending’s eponymous first single failed to inspire much hope that the band would again reach the heights they once had. I did what any self-respecting non-masochist would have done: I tuned out. It was better to wait for Always Ascending’s release, I thought, than to embrace the record through its singles, and thereby convince myself of its demise, given how they had thus far failed to impress.
I don’t know whether or not that was the right thing to do, but some weeks after its release, Always Ascending is proving to be just as appealing and infectious as Tonight. Here’s the thing about Franz Ferdinand: the band built the core of their content over several years through a strategy of using a rock setup to play what essentially boils down to non-electronic dance music. Sure, the occasional ballad pops up once in a while. (2005’s “Walk Away” comes to mind, and is paralleled on their latest record with “The Academy Award.”) but for the most part, what Always Ascending gets right is that it updates (but doesn’t move away from) the band’s original dance-rock background. Songs like “Finally” and “Huck And Jim” play almost as throwbacks to the band’s early glory days, but are constructed around a tighter, more mature playing style.
As far as ballads go, “The Academy Award” tries to emulate or build upon the bittersweet tinge of previous tracks like “Walk Away,” but ultimately falls flat. What’s strange, then, is that the disco-influenced “Glimpse of Love” proves to be a much more effective ballad (even though it’s still poppy).
However, for all their floundering on Always Ascending, the band still manages to pull together and deliver tracks that successfully merge the energy of their early records with the more melancholy electronic aspects of their recent work. “Lois Lane,” for example, pulls away as one of the most memorable tracks on Always Ascending, and it’s telling that it reveals itself as a gem in spite of the fact that it’s clearly a B-side.
It’s as if the only thing that has gotten in the way of Franz Ferdinand moving forward this decade has been their attempt to make music that still adheres to the Franz Ferdinand band. On Always Ascending, the band has started to realize that they can’t release their debut record repeatedly under different titles, and that despite that fact, they ought not fight what they become.
One way to characterize the aesthetic exploration undertaken by musicians throughout their career is to assert, as Franz Ferdinand’s latest record does, that musicians are, despite it all, always ascending.