Back in 2004, I walked into HMV and was faced with the choice of buying either The Killers’ Hot Fuss or Franz Ferdinand’s eponymous debut. Thank goodness I endorsed the latter. While their contemporaries have meandered through the wilderness of Americana before pandering to their love of 80s guilty pleasures, Franz Ferdinand’s career to date has been elusive, concise and, most importantly, of a consistently high quality. To those who feel hoodwinked by 2005’s sophomore effort, You Could Have It So Much Better, I would proffer that while their debut was considerably sleeker and tauter, the second release was of comparable quality, only brasher, grittier and angrier. It was recorded in a hurry – often seen as a curse – but I would maintain that its more developed song structures showed greater depth to the band’s abilities.
Step into 2009 and, against a backdrop of mediocre indie and attractive female electro-popsters, how does the Scottish quartet’s latest effort fare? Much has been said of the intervening years, in which the band experimented with creaky synths, Afrobeat grooves and shiny pop producers, but has any of this actually surfaced in Tonight: Franz Ferdinand? One thing that can safely be said is that Tonight… is a considerably leaner beast than the last; more focused on the dancefloor than society’s ills. Tracks like No You Girls and the opener, Ulysses, ride on football terrace choruses and hooks while successfully navigating the waters of synthesiser experimentation. When the band deal a heavier hand, as in the case of What She Came For and Twilight Omens, the songs have a pleasing blend of retro glam and roadhouse eruptions. Treated piano gives way to well-produced rhythm-led stomps that are attractive and memorable, if not instantly history-rewriting.
Conceptually, frontman Alex Kapranos reckons Tonight is a depiction of a typical lads’ night out, from the discovery of a new drug (Ulysses), through the naïvety of first love (No You Girls), to the euphoria of the dancefloor (Live Alone, which channels Blondie and Abba through a Glaswegian burr). In this respect, the album is bang on the money: far from being a discrete set of radio-ready singles, the group are clever enough to know the benefits of pacing and narrative arc, thus the album unfolds true to Kapranos’ cheeky and insightful lyrics. The climax of this night on the tiles arrives halfway through undoubted centrepiece Lucid Dreams, which, isolated from the context of the album, sounds wildly experimental and strangely lurching. In context, this eight-minute marathon represents the transformation from innocence into hedonism, as a krautrock groove makes way for four minutes of Moroder-esque acid-house freakout.
After the peak must come the comedown, surely, and the album delivers here, too. The loping, sideways Dream Again is reminiscent of Tom Waits at his addled best, while closer Katherine Kiss Me is a partial reprise of No You Girls, re-imagined as a acoustic troubadour’s farewell. On paper, these varied genres sound wildly disparate, but the cohesion of an album can come from lyrical themes too, as shown in this instance. By allowing the events of the night to take hold of the album, Kapranos delivers a resounding finger to those who would doubt their breadth in songwriting skills. Tonight may lack the instant appeal of the band’s debut, and the songs may not stand the test of time in the same way, but it offers an intriguing insight into their less obvious influences – a key example being Send Him Away, which apes Vampire Weekend in its pursuit of African poly-rhythms and psych-funk grooves.
Do Franz Ferdinand remain relevant in the aftermath of the scene they helped to revive? Not really, but I would argue that that scene has gone stale to such a degree that no band with any artistic integrity would even want to. From here on, the band could go in myriad directions, provided they can keep on delivering the hooks and lyrical invention and wit that have kept them a cut above the rest of the pack thus far. Long may Nick McCarthy’s Moogs and Korgs fart and groan!