There’s an air of resignation, even mortality, that comes through when Alex Kapranos utters the foreboding last lines on Franz Ferdinand’s latest album Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action: “When they lie and say this is not the end / You can laugh as if we’re still together / But this really is the end.” With a droll lyricist like Kapranos, it’s safe to assume that there are some double meanings going on here, as likely that he’s referring to an ambiguous relationship scenario as he is to his band’s future on the suggestively titled “Goodbye Lovers and Friends” — if anything, the latter reading might be the more obvious one, considering how some of the press leading up to the release of Right Thoughts discusses how Kapranos had been miserable during the making of 2009’s Tonight, with Franz Ferdinand on the verge of breaking up and, in his own words, “exactly the opposite of what I wanted to be as a band.” So even if, by all accounts, Franz Ferdinand is back on the right track with the right mindset for Right Thoughts, it’s hard not to interpret lyrics like “Goodbye lovers and friends, it’s so sad to leave you” in the context of the group’s backstory.
That’s also because the way “Goodbye Lovers and Friends” begins is as telling as it ends, as Kapranos seethes in his best Jarvis Cocker-like sneer, “I don’t play pop music, no / You know, I hate pop music.” That you can’t tell whether Kapranos is being straight with you or has his tongue firmly planted in his cheek gets to the heart of Franz Ferdinand’s existential angst, which has saddled the band ever since it became an unlikely U.S. mainstream hit almost a decade ago, when its single “Take Me Out” became ubiquitous and spliced riffs from “Jacqueline” showed up in major league baseball commercials. With its predilections for high-art concept and stylish, tailored rock, Franz Ferdinand found itself ill suited for success, its lofty ambitions to meld the dynamic lines of Russian Constructivism and post-punk re-routed into detours like that surreal medley with the likes of Maroon 5 and the Black Eyed Peas at the beginning of the 2005 Grammys. The comparison that’s been made between Franz Ferdinand and the Strokes is an apt one, except that the Brits have seemed even more uncomfortable with their awkward position of being bigger than they ever should’ve been, yet somehow ending up not becoming as popular as they could’ve been. All this goes to say that you can appreciate why Kapranos would hate pop music.
The irony, of course, is that Franz Ferdinand is at their best making pop music, or at least its version of it. That cruel twist of fate definitely plays out on Right Thoughts, a solid if uneven combination of tight, compact punkish rompers and meandering light rock offerings. Whatever ambivalence Franz Ferdinand has about pop music, the paradox is that the quartet has definitely had a hand in shaping the guitar-driven rock variety of the genre, skills it capably shows off by frontloading Right Thoughts with some of its catchiest numbers since the 2004 self-titled debut. Yet whereas “Take Me Out” and “Darts of Pleasure” had a freshness to them that spoke to Franz Ferdinand’s instincts for being in the right place at the right time, singles like “Right Action” and “Love Illumination” are more about craftsmanship than precocious vigor, distilling those earlier ideas into their pop essence and honing down the edges some. Here, the touchstone is less the jagged agitation of post-punk and more along the lines of new wave pop, what with the way “Right Action” snaps more than it cuts and how “Love Illumination”, luxuriating in horn embellishments, feels more lush than angular.
If anything, there are moments on Right Thoughts that seem poppier than ever for Franz Ferdinand and finds them better off for it, whatever Kapranos’ proclamations and protestations. And those instances come in different forms, whether it’s with the slinky flow of “Evil Eye” or the straightforward, straight-up guitar-pop of the aptly named “Bullet”. Best of all is how “Stand on the Horizon” touches on a variety of idioms then stitches them together, somehow juxtaposing buoyant beats, snatches of strings, spongy synths, and crisp, syncopated riffs in a way that all the elements work compatibly. So while Franz Ferdinand has done disco-punk before, “Stand of the Horizon” feels more melodically rich and dynamic by tipping the scales to the disco side, with zingy flourishes nicely accompanying Kapranos’ croon at its most debonair.
But it’s when Kapranos gets too caught up in his own head about being a pop band or not that Right Thoughts becomes weighted down. Indeed, the line “I don’t play pop music, no” seems to reflect a band that can be too cute by half, especially when Franz Ferdinand turns off its generally spot-on musical intuition and overthinks things rather than just doing what it does best. Sometimes, Franz Ferdinand’s existential condition yields derivative mid-tempo material like the Blur-ry “Brief Encounters”, while at others, it leads to manic episodes like “Fresh Strawberries”, an out-of-sorts jumble of oddly twangy jangle and soaring Beatles-esque vocals musing morbidly about how, as Kapranos puts it, “We will soon be rotten / We will all be forgotten / Half-remembered rumors of the old.” Even more egregious is “Treason! Animals.”, which comes off overanxious and forced, as Kapranos’ Freudian moment finds him unsure about going primal or repressing his urges, as he riffs off being in love with a narcissist, his pharmacist, his analyst, and his nemesis. And the music may be even more all over-the-place than the song’s conceit, its jittery Sleater-Kinney-like guitars and carnivalesque keyboards amping up the discordant hyperactivity.
If Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action is supposed to be a therapy session for Kapranos and company about being a pop band, it’s clear that they still have some issues to work through. But even if Franz Ferdinand itself hasn’t come to a resolution to its identity crisis, listeners may recognize what Kapranos himself can’t, that his band has always had a better chance at becoming all it can be — or could’ve been, at this point — by doing what it apparently hasn’t wanted to do, play pop music.