All it takes is the first three rapid strums of the guitar, and listeners’ ears perk up for what still holds as one of the best dance rock songs of the millennium. The tension in the tight, playful guitar/bass lines and the pounding disco drums of Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out” are so perfect, it hardly needs words to express the nervous energy of the club scene in which our narrator agonizes over expressing his feelings. But the words are there anyway, just to punctuate the playful dance between “making a move” and “waiting it out to not mess it all up.”
Scottish dance-rockers Franz Ferdinand will always be compared to their masterpiece from 14 years ago. It’s a hard hurdle to overcome, and always a blessing and a curse. However, the group has consistently produced excellent dance rock since their debut, keeping them from one-hit-wonder status. Now later in their career, however, that comparison becomes even harder. Despite losing a key piece of their identity in Nick McCarthy, the group journeys on with Always Ascending.
And instead of making a split with the past and just looking to their present art, their marketing compared it to that classic debut, calling Always Ascending “as invigorating an album as the band’s glistening debut”. Wow. So this should be one of the top 10 albums of the year, right? Well, it’s not that. But despite some missteps, Always Ascending features enough excellent dance tracks, experimentation, and optimism to keep Franz Ferdinand fun and relevant a decade and a half into their career.
The album starts off strong with the title track featuring the eerie Shepard tone effect, literally making the song “Always Ascending” as the familiar disco rock takes over, bringing to mind LCD Soundsystem. “Lazy Boy” continues the groovy opening with some of the best guitar riffs of the album, combining “Funkytown” funk chords with surf-y tremolo picking. Rounding out the opening trio, “Paper Cages” invites us to “step out” of the social constructs and barriers that keep us from being free, and they make it sound so easy.
“Finally” isn’t able to continue the energy of its predecessors with its clunky structure and its bland, repetitive lyrics about being fine in the spring sunshine. But follow up “The Academy Award” stands as one of the most interesting songs on the album. An eerie, atmospheric track about celebrity in our attention-seeking, selfie-snapping society, it marks an experimental success for the band, but feels a little out of place on a dance rock record. “Lois Lane”, on the other hand, takes its subject matter – being thirtysomething and juggling career ambitions with meaningful relationships – and delivers it with unrelenting danciness.
“Huck and Jim” is another oddball track that honestly wouldn’t feel out of place on a Foxygen album. It has that over-the-top theatrical element, combining a contemplative bass-driven verse with an early ’80s rap-inspired pre-chorus before jumping into a triumphant chorus where Alex Kapranos criticizes American healthcare and racial tensions, hoping to “sip 40’s with Huck and Jim”, a reference to Mark Twain’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the title character of course being a young white boy, while Jim is a fleeing slave.
These tracks are more than you bargained for if you’re just looking for songs to dance to and forget the world’s problems. But conversely, Franz Ferdinand invite us to dance through the world’s problems, a solution that may be necessary, as those problems don’t seem to be ending anytime soon. But despite the problems, we’ll always have dance and love, as Kapranos sings on the climactic “Feel the Love Go”, “Think of a friend / And wish them love / Think of an enemy / And wish them more / Then feel that love return / Feel the love infinity.” Franz Ferdinand’s approach to dance rock hasn’t changed all that much since their 2004 masterpiece. But their optimism for a better society and their commitment to their free and fun nature is something to smile about.