What you just saw was the cover photo for John Zorn’s seminal avant-jazz masterpiece Naked City, released in 1989. To this day, Naked City remains one of jazz’s most polarizing, uncompromising albums, filled with noise squalls, insane tempos, and Zorn’s furious sax dueling with Bill Frisell’s wild guitar licks at any given moment. It’s fitting, then, that for a record so genre-busting and utterly unconventional, the cover art would be a 1940 crime photo of a man who has literally been shot in the face.
Now, look at the album cover right next to these words. The cover photo for Tonight: Franz Ferdinand appears to have been taken about 30 seconds after the events of the Naked City picture, as panicked bystanders are now trying to necessitate this injured man all while frontman/singer/unintentional pinup boy Alex Kapranos is doing what he can to shoo away this lone cameraman trying to get a good scoop. Whether or not these Scot-rockers were intentionally trying to recapture the fatalism that is embedded in the Zorn cover is almost beside the point; for a band who had previously hid their angular guitar pop behind retro logo designs and nostalgic pop art, seeing their faces on the cover implies that there’s something different in the air this time ‘round, as if the band is ready to put themselves out on the line for once ...
... and put themselves on the line they do.
To put it simply, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand is one helluva deal breaker. While their eponymous 2004 debut was riddled with nervy guitars (the stop-start crunch of “Take Me Out”, the candy-disco chorus of “The Dark of the Matinee”) and 2005’s You Can Have It So Much Better gradually moved into poppier territory (as evidenced by the gloriously stupid, fantastically addictive single “Do You Want To”), nothing can prepare even the most hardcore of fans for the numerous artistic detours of Tonight. Though there was much rumor and speculation prior to the album’s release that the band had somehow discovered a newfound joy in Afro-beat rhythms, the exact opposite is true: Franz Ferdinand have discovered a newfound joy for keyboards, electric pianos, and dirty lo-fi synths. Opening track “Ulysses”, in fact, starts off with a minimalist bassline ripped right out of the Spoon playbook (eerily recalling that band’s Prince-like strut of a single “I Turn My Camera On”), all while Kapranos whisper-screams sweet come-ons before squelchy synths come in to absolutely dominate the rest of the track.
Yet the electronic fun doesn’t stop there. “Send Him Away” breaks from its Paul Simon-y guitar ticks halfway through for yet another adventurous keyboard breakdown, “No You Girls Never Know” uses dated, almost minimalist production values to give a dry padding for Kapranos’ tirade against girls who don’t know the power of their own actions (using a slightly rewritten “Take Me Out” chorus), and the penultimate closer “Dream Again” dives into full-on synth-pop territory, using a simplistic digital drum beat and echoed keyboard plinks to craft a sweet little ballad that recalls Blur’s late-era electronic experiments at their best (think “Yoku & Hiro” territory). Yet Tonight‘s undeniable musical highlight is the nearly eight-minute “Lucid Dreams”, a track that begins as another one of the band’s trademark hedonistic guitar romps (accented with keyboards, of course) until about the four-minute mark, in which the vocals and guitars drop away and the synth patterns begin growing, changing, and expanding, eventually turning into a DFA-styled dance floor burner. It’s a strobelight-ready club track from the last band you’d expect to craft such a thing. The experiment by itself would be noteworthy, but the fact that it’s so immediate, dynamic, and flat-out exciting makes it all the more of a marvel to behold. Yes, Franz Ferdinand still have some surprises up their sleeves, and this time around, they’re not afraid to use them.
Though there are still a few easy singles to be found (the guitar-heavy “Turn It On” was reportedly written during previous album sessions but saved for years just so the band could have a hit in the bank), the lyrical focus of the album is never in doubt: Kapranos still has romantic insecurities and he’s more than happy to tell you about them. On the excellent “Live Alone”, he recounts a relationship in ruin that would best benefit from some physical distance:
I wanna live alone
Because the greatest love
Is always ruined by the bickering
The argument of living
I wanna live alone
I could be happy on my own
Live the rest of my life
With the vaguest of feelings
Though most of Kapranos’ lyrics continue in the same vein, his best moments remain when he’s unsure of what his own intentions are. “You know that yes I love / I mean, I’d love to get to know you” he sings on “No You Girls Never Know”, a hesitation that’s echoed—word for word—in the acoustic closer “Katherine Kiss Me”, in which Kapranos admits to the titular heroine that he says stupid things, and that she “glance[s] a ricochet from every alpha male behind me”, making for a remarkably concise little character portrait and one of Kapranos’ best lyrical outings to date.
It’s a shame, then, that even with these smart words and new textures, Tonight‘s biggest problem is both simple and glaringly obvious: the hooks are just so much weaker this time around. In any context, “What She Came For” is a passable workout for the Ferdinand, but it never rises about being merely “passable”, which at least is more that what can be said for “Twilight Omens”, which is almost instantly forgettable despite is desperate synth hook. The chorus on “Turn It On” is still catchy, but it still falls short of watermarks like “Do You Want To” and “This Fire”. All in all, the band just isn’t as melodically inclined this time around, and it’s a damn shame, too, because by and large, this still remains the band’s most adventurous outing to date—just not their most memorable.
Which brings us back to Naked City. To call John Zorn uncompromising would be akin to calling the sky blue, but to see Franz Ferdinand step out of their comfort zone and try something remarkably different—well, it’s a welcome (and in some ways, necessary) change for the group. Tonight is not the band’s masterpiece, but it doesn’t need to be: it shows them evolving at just the right time in their career, even if their sense of a tight melody has waned in the process. Are noise-jazz freakouts possibly on their horizon for the Scottish quartet? It’s impossible to say right now; but no matter what they do, we’ll still be listening with eager ears.