Franz Ferdinand: Tonight: Franz Ferdinand

Evan Sawdey

Spoon ripoffs? DFA-styled dancefloor excurions? Putting Damon Albarn in his place? Whatever is going on with Franz Ferdinand, it's a welcome, if not completely memorable, change of pace.

Franz Ferdinand

Tonight: Franz Ferdinand

Label: Domino
US Release Date: 2009-01-27
UK Release Date: 2009-01-26

First, look at this image.

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.





90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.


Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.