By releasing their sophomore album a year and a half after their Mercury Prize-winning 2004 debut, the incessant chorus of “Take Me Out” still reverberating in many peoples’ heads, Franz Ferdinand leave themselves wide open for criticism. If there’s a single mis-step, a moment where a riff is recycled, a hook that sounds too much like an early song, the inevitable shouts will emit from the peanut gallery: “It sounds like a rush job!” So before you even give You Could Have It So Much Better a first listen, if anything, you have to admire this Scottish band’s gumption for wasting no time in stepping back into the fray. When you’re one of the few British rock bands since Oasis to make a large impact in fickle mainstream America, you must keep the momentum going, but those same people you won over a year ago are waiting for the first chance to turn their backs on you, so the new material had better be great, or it’s back to the UK you go.
Franz Ferdinand’s decided lack of complacency is made crystal clear in the album’s title, and like a bunch of crazed auteurs who are never happy with their work, the band headed back to Glasgow, and punched out a record that they hoped would improve on the original, and as it turns out, they’ve come close, much closer than many would have expected. Make no mistake, the central core of their music, the disco rhythms, the fabulously funky Gang of Four basslines, the sharp slices of guitars, still remains, but like The Strokes’ Room on Fire, another much-anticipated second album that was met with inaccurate accusations of sounding too much like its predecessor, Franz have elaborated on that sound of theirs subtly enough not to alienate their fanbase, yet also show the kind of growth one would expect from a sequel. We’ve always liked this band, but we all might have underestimated just how flippin’ talented they can be, because not only does You Could Have It So Much Better prove they’re here for the long haul, but the foursome do it with the kind of easygoing confidence that leaves us wondering how we could have doubted them in the first place.
Like the welcome arrival of the life of the party, “The Fallen” opens the album with a flamboyant swagger, the guitars of Alex Kapranos and Nick McCarthy loping about, delivering the song’s hook one second, shifting into a lurching, Wire style riff the next, and even tossing in a fuzzed-out guitar solo. Meanwhile, Kapranos is his typical self, spewing enigmatic, oddly political lyrics nonstop, full of both pop culture and Biblical references, as his bandmates offer mocking background vocals in the form of sarcastic “oo-hoo”‘s, the song bolstered by a brief, inexplicable pub sing-along, its only purpose to make things even more nutty. “This Boy” moves with a overcaffeinated, Buzzcocks-like urgency, lampooning the fast-paced lifestyle the overnight celebrities have found themselves in (“One kicks as good as another”), while “Walk Away” follows up the madness with a more stately Pulp style gait, Kapranos managing a decent Cocker imitation (“Mascara bleeds a blackened tear”), as he’s been wont to do in the past. Piano and acoustic guitar add more flavor to the clever “What You Meant”, and while the punchy “I’m Your Villain” does return to the “Take Me Out” formula, it’s rescued by a ferocious, four-on-the-floor chorus, and a coda dominated by a terrific riff that echoes The Stooges.
First single “Do You Want To” is an instant winner, a tongue-in-cheek piss-take that takes a poke at the Glasgow art scene while adding the kind of wry touches of ambiguous homosexuality that the band seems to relish. Best of all is the monstrous, ridiculously simple hook the song is built around, one of the best celebrations of the Big ‘80s sound since Blur’s “Girls and Boys”, as synths and vocal “do do”‘s careen about, the song anchored by the extremely danceable rhythm section provided by bassist Bob Hardy and drummer Paul Thomson. The lithe closing track “Outsiders” serves as an interesting epilogue for the album, highlighted by Hardy’s nuanced performance, but the most radical departures come later on, first on the sweet “Eleanor Put Your Boots On”, a lilting piano ballad bearing a slight similarity to the Beatles’ “For No One”, in which a rosy-eyed Kapranos croons to the Fiery Furnaces’ female Friedberger, and the similar-sounding “Fade Together”, which goes for more of a Bowie feel.
By bringing more variety to the table, You Could Have It So Much Better is more of a grower than the much more instantly engaging debut, but like that great first album, the easygoing charisma of this band wins us over. In the year since Franz Ferdinand paved the way for the other post-punk acts, The Killers may have become more popular, and Bloc Party might have the superior album this year, but few bands today have the kind of likeable personality that Franz exudes. They’re serious, immensely talented musicians, but they’re not above having a larf or two (and this is the key) without coming off as overbearing, and considering the stale state of contemporary rock music, it’s something we wish there was more of these days.