(Domino Records, out Fri 9 Feb 2018)
Two drastic things have happened to Franz Ferdinand since last we saw them. First, Alex Kapranos and Paul Thomson have gone bottle blonde. Second, guitarist Nick McCarthy has left the band to concentrate on “some completely different things” (presumably Manuela, his project with his wife).
The former doesn’t affect the music. You might reasonably have thought the latter would.
In reality, that’s not noticeably the case. Always Ascending is less guitar driven than of old – Julian Corrie (aka producer Miaoux Miaoux) having been drafted in to do his thing on synths – but then such is the fashion these days. It’s not hard to imagine this is the album they would have made even if McCarthy were still with them. They’ve been known to lose themselves in electronics before – see the unruly outro to Lucid Dreams from Tonight in 2009 – and there’s nothing as uncharacteristic as that here. In fact, the whole thing’s not really screaming 2018. This is an album Franz Ferdinand could have made any time in the last decade.
They’re still employing their two killer moves: injecting the pop-funk into indie rock and Kapranos’ lyrical archness. “It’s bleak at the over-30s singles night… see you next week,” he sings on Lois Lane, like Glasgow’s answer to Jarvis Cocker. To really soar though, they’ve always needed something else – pandemic infectiousness (Take Me Out), a wistful air (Walk Away) or a good old-fashioned wig out (Outsiders). Nothing here really catches fire like that.
The two singles so far – the title track and Feel The Love Go – are competent 6 Music fare but don’t hold a candle to the indie disco thrills of earlier work. The likes of Lazy Boy, Finally and Huck and Jim largely dispense with tunes to concentrate on texture. The Academy Award is a slowie in the footsteps of Eleanor Put Your Boots Back On but without the brightness. Melodies have been almost drained of colour, restricted to a limited range and varying little between verse and chorus.
The result feels very subdued. Franz Ferdinand’s sound has often been dense, but it’s always had zip. This, dare I say it, is almost leaden. Perhaps McCarthy has been missed, not so much in the sound but in the vibe. Franz Ferdinand are missing their pep.
When they played the Festival with Sparks as FFS, it was decent but made you yearn to hear from both bands separately again. Sparks delivered with a fabulous turn at the Glasgow 6 Music Festival and the Hippopotamus album. Franz’s return is the less impressive of the two. It won’t disappoint the faithful – it doesn’t depart from template enough – but they could take a few tips on freshening things up from their former collaborators.