The solo career of Albert Hammond, Jr. started as a low-key side project that became something revitalized after the release of his
AHJ EP in 2013. Since then, he traded the ramshackle approach of his early work (unsurprising, given his first album was named after a Guided By Voices song) for something more focused and polished, a sound that was more of a modern take on new wave than the sort of scruffy rock that one would have expected from a member of the Strokes. Each subsequent move seemed like a build to something, and that something turned out to be Francis Trouble. Far from being a diversionary solo project, Trouble is an artistic statement that sets Hammond apart as a solo artist.
Francis Trouble posits itself as a concept album of sorts about Hammond’s unborn twin, but there’s little about the album to suggest that it’s some sort of rock opera. What Hammond does instead is use the concept and the idea of a life unlived to infuse his songs with a subtle depth. The conflict comes out when you least expect it, like when he desperately screams out “Hold on!” on “Set to Attack”. Furthermore, the sweet tone of Hammond’s voice humanizes many of these songs, which can often have the sharpened precision of the Cars or Elvis Costello. There’s a beating heart that runs through the entirety of Francis Trouble, and the album is that much more of an interesting and enjoyable experience as a result.
However, one shouldn’t let the heady nature of Hammond’s concept get in the way of what makes
Francis Trouble such a worthwhile listen: the album is simply a lot of fun. Hammond’s songs are written at a breakneck pace with an emphasis on melody and propulsion above all else. The first four songs on the album play like a mini “greatest hits” set on their own; each song could have been a hit single in a different day, and they still have that impact even without a more welcoming environment on the pop charts. The album’s second half, meanwhile, provides Hammond with a chance to stretch out and explore different ideas and styles, from the meandering “Rocky’s Late Night” to the somewhat bizarre “Strangers”. Despite these diversions, Francis Trouble never overstays its welcome; it’s as quick and concise as some of the great rock albums strive to be while still being memorable.
Francis Trouble doesn’t arrive with aspirations with being one of the Great Important Albums, yet it feels like it was a necessary album for Hammond to make. The man has been through quite a lot over the years, to put it lightly, and he seems to be approaching his work with a renewed purpose and energy. The steady craftsmanship on display here is indicative of someone enjoying what they’re doing and doing it as well as they can. Hammond seems to have a new lease on life, and that ebullience and curiosity are very much what makes Francis Trouble such a thrilling listen.