How I envy the listener who discovers Sparks through FFS, the debut album by the Franz Ferdinand-Sparks hybrid of the same name. The Mael brothers’ back catalogue is one of the richest in rock history, spanning four decades and encapsulating prog-lite weirdness, glam rock at its finest, creme de la creme disco, idiosyncratic synth pop, and monumental chamber pop. 22 albums in and it’s simply remarkable that Sparks is still doing something new, this time with some arch-pop co-conspirators in tow. That Sparks approached Franz Ferdinand (who are admitted fans of the duo) about collaborating over a decade ago doesn’t take away the freshness of FFS. In Franz Ferdinand’s case, the collaboration seems to have even restored some of its creative energy.
Virtually every song on FFS unfolds with boundless energy and hooks aplenty. It could almost be called a “zany” affair, but the content of these songs is a little too poignant for that. The album’s kick-off, “Johnny Delusional”, and its follow-up, “Call Girl”, are both about desperate men, but the tales are conveyed via hyper-active, infectious jaunts, thus turning their lyrical desperation into a subversive treasure to be uncovered. “Call Girl’s” choruses have a playfulness reminiscent of Franz Ferdinand hits like “Do You Want To”, given an extra boost by the impeccable merging of Russell Mael’s falsetto with Alex Kapranos’ deeper croon.
The first two songs show the Sparks hallmark of spinning a lustful yarn amid a cluster of manic synth lines, while FFS’s third, “Dictator’s Son”, showcases the more satirical side of Ron Mael’s lyrics, in this case concerning a titular character more keen on American excesses like “wings and dip” and “girls who strip” than following in his father’s footsteps. This is followed by possibly the most Franz Ferdinand-esque song on the album, “Little Guy From the Suburbs”, a somber, almost entirely Kapranos-sung character study of a terrorist on a suicide mission. It’s a standout track, its departure from FFS’s more musically upbeat offerings causing it to serve as a breather while still captivating the listener. Again, Kapranos and Russell Mael deliver the songs perfectly, with Kapranos’ vocals acting as the suave seducer to Mael’s oversexed hysteria on the randier tunes. It’s two sides to the average schmoe of such songs as “Police Encounters” follows, a giddy number about fancying a policeman’s wife after running into trouble in Harlem.
FF’s second half has as many standout moments as its first, from the fetishistic “So Desu Ne” to the eloquent “Things I Won’t Get”, the epic “Collaborations Don’t Work” and pointed “Piss Off”. “Things I Won’t Get”, sung by Franz guitarist and keyboardist Nick McCarthy, is a beautiful and sweet checking off of the unattainable, from material prizes like “an Oscar or two” to the philosophical musings of “films that are French”. The song also contains the most devastating lyrical couplet, presenting the out of reach scenario of, “Affairs with a star who offers me dope far in advance,” and following it with, “a college degree, a job with some hope”. It’s a funny and sad punch to the gut if there ever was one.
“Collaborations Don’t Work” starts out great and quickly becomes the final word in songs that are about making music. Starting off with some practical reservations on collaborating, such as having to delay your vacation, concerns soon grow to encompass potential love affairs and an array of artistic differences, with Kapranos eventually showing his true colors with “I ain’t no collaborator…I am the sadistic young usurper, hand on your neck, hand on your lover…”, delivered in his most dastardly debonair tone.
The album ends with “Piss Off”, an ode to wanting to be left alone, conveyed with show tune-level gusto. In the perfect world, this would be the song of the summer, and not just for the introverts. Its indulgence in the pleasures of giving the middle finger to the bores in your life is wholly relatable. But for all of FFS’ deriding of being among others, the album as a whole makes a solid case for the beauty of the perfect combination. FFS speaks to the power of great tunesmiths working together, but even if you favor the “Piss Off” route, may you cozy up with Sparks’ back catalogue on those days when it’s too hot to bother with the world outside your bedroom.