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Sam Lambeth finds Franz Ferdinand full of renewed vigour on the keyboard-drenched dapperness of Always Ascending. The Academy Award for best comeback goes to…
While Franz Ferdinand have never led a particular fashion, their career has been one of frustrating discomfort. When they first emerged as the debonair Dadaist indie despots of 2004, adorned with wasp-like waists, angular fringes and anorexic ties, their out-of-step post-punk had enough energy for any indie dancefloor. They brushed off any second album syndrome fears with 2005’s slick You Could Have It So Much Better (pretty much summing up their success by naming a track Well That Was Easy), but since then attempts at trying on new clothes have felt like gilding the lily – 2009’s Tonight was a gigantic misstep into gloomy electro, while their 2015 collaboration with Sparks was fun but disposable. With original guitarist Nick McCarthy now gone, their fifth album and first for five years feels like a real chance at reinvention.
The key ingredient that seemed to be missing from the band’s everlasting sense of magpie-esque cool was that unbridled fun. On Always Ascending, they’ve relocated that camp cheer and crushing wit – on the Tinder-baiting The Academy Award, frontman Alex Kapranos mourns the “laptop predator, hunter gatherer” and “the glamour of applause in every mind” over a haunting, string-drenched lament reminiscent of some of their finest torch songs (think Eleanor Put Your Boots On and Stand On the Horizon).
Elsewhere, the kitschy pop of their Sparks sojourn rears its head on the propulsive beats of Lois Lane, where Kapranos says that a journalist can “change the world” (pah!) with twinkling naivety, before rollicking into a thunderous descent into an “over 30s singles night”. Even when they stick to the Franz formula – think angular riffs, Kapranos’ effortless drawl, clashing drums – it has a fresh sense of brio and brawn. Paper Cages is the most overtly classicist piece here, albeit bathed in Bowie-esque crescendos and gorgeous harmonies, while the sparse but surging Lazy Boy betrays its name with strutting chords and stabbing shouts.
The album doesn’t let up as it gets into its final third, either. The Transatlantic troubles of Huck and Jim applies a whack white boy rap of “drinking Bucky with the boys” as Kapranos and co talk of heading to America with the NHS. Glimpse of Love sounds like a sped-up Auf Asche, its disco-tinged theatrics soundtracking the perils of the selfie age, Kapranos shouting “bring me a photographer”. The two singles – the epic grandeur of the title track and the twitching disco throb of Feel the Love Go – easily enter the pantheon of greatest Franz singles, and with a commendable back catalogue, that is no mean feat.
Franz Ferdinand had never endured a career slump or any kind of comedown, but their fifth album felt like, for the first time since the noughties, they had something to prove. With fresh energy, tight tracks and new members, they’ve achieved it with aplomb. Always ascending? Well that was easy. Again.
Sam Lambeth is a journalist, writer and musician, born in the West Midlands but currently living in London. He performs in his own band, Quinn. He is on Twitter, and more of his work can be found on his archive.