We build them up, then knock them down. It’s the English way. Even as Franz Ferdinand were taking on all-comers last year, you could almost hear the critics sharpening their pencils, thinking ‘ah, but just wait till their second album…’. It’s easy to forget now just how startling their debut album was, back when every other band sounded a pale imitation of Coldplay.
Now, of course, in a world of Bloc Parties and Rakes and where even Fire Engines are making a comeback, we’re all art-rockers now. So how do Franz negotiate that notorious ‘difficult second album’? Can they perform that fine balancing act between giving casual fans more of the same while showing signs of musical development and evolution?
It takes just over a minute into You Could Have It So Much Better to realise that they’ve pulled it off with some style. The Fallen begins with one of those now trademark Franz Ferdinand guitar riffs before Alex Kapronos sends out a call to arms for the troubled and dispossessed who “rob a supermarket or two…well, who gives a damn for the profits of Tesco”. As the song skids into one of the catchiest chorus you’ll hear all year, you’ll have to stop yourself punching the air in joy.
The fact that The Fallen is then followed by the delirious stomp of the single Do You Want To before diving headfirst into the glorious rush of This Boy (featuring Kapronos hollering like a particularly demented joyrider “I want a car”) means that the first three tracks of the album are a more effective wake up call than a double expresso.
After such a strong opening it’s inevitable that the album starts to sag a bit in the middle, with both Evil And A Heathen and You’re The Reason I’m Leaving sounding a bit too formulaic for comfort. There are encouraging signs of progression on the album though – Walk Away recalls Kraftwerk in its introduction, while Eleanor Put Your Boots On (presumably dedicated to Kapronos’ girlfriend Eleanor Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces) is a lovely, woozy nursery rhyme of a song, totally different to anything they’ve done before.
Fade Together even addresses that much levelled accusation that the band lack emotion – it’s a wistful piano ballad with Kapronos in fine voice. “Once you have loved someone this much, you doubt it could fade” he croons, and when he sings “Oh God, you are so far away” you can almost hear his voice crack. It’s one of the most touching and surprising moments on the album.
Lest we forget though that Franz Ferdinand make “guitar music for girls to dance to” and there’s no shortage of that here, together with that clever twist that make them so irresistible to listen to. Well That Was Easy employs all manner of tempo changes and 100mph guitars, while I’m Your Villain is your classic Franz disco stomper, certain to appeal to everyone who fell in love with Take Me Out.
So will this be enough to stem the Franz Ferdinand backlash? Possibly not – Kapronos’ lyrics sometimes raise an unintentional giggle (“If I like cocaine, I’m racing you, for organic fresh Echinacea” in This Boy) and some songs do tend to sound rather too similar for their own good.
Yet overall, this is far outweighed by the album’s plus points – the deliciously lecherous “you’re so lucky, lucky, lucky” refrain of Do You Want To, the clipped guitar sound of closing track Outsiders or even the ‘never settle for second best’ message behind the album’s title. Their first album was one of the strongest debuts in recent memory and this is an equally impressive follow-up. You could have it so much better? Maybe, but not much better than this.