Monday, January 3, 2011

You Could Have It So Much Better… with Franz Ferdinand
directors' cut, Blender, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

In an early short story by Ian McEwan, a female novelist struggles to follow up her acclaimed, best-selling debut. The psychologically macabre twist in the tale comes when it’s revealed that the manuscript she’s been toiling over for months is actually a painstakingly typed-out, word-for-word reiteration of the first book. Now, You Could Have It So Much Better is far from a note-for-note duplicate of Franz Ferdinand. Still, for a band dedicated to the resurrection of arty pop, there are surprisingly few risks taken on their sophomore album. It used to be a matter of honor for art-rockers to make giant leaps with each successive record. But on You Could Have, the attitude seems to have been “let’s not mess with a winning formula, lads, shall we?”

As formulas go, it’s a winsome one: brittle white-boy funk topped by Alex Kapranos’ suavely crooned vocals and witty, sexually piquant lyrics. Franz are master exponents of that distinctly British forte for using abrasive guitars in a way that feels pop rather than rock. And they’re equally adept at that other Britpop ploy whereby fey young men seduce the girls in the audience by acting like they’re really more interested in boys. Last time, it was the bisexual epiphany of “Michael”; this time, it’s the homo-erotic ardor of “This Boy” and the saucy boast “your famous friend/well I blew him before you” in “Do You Want To.” A glorious, gleeful romp jam-packed with quotables, that song is the album’s strongest stab in Franz’s main mode of oddly fussy, flustered discopunk, closely followed by “The Fallen” and “I’m Your Villain” (one section of which actually recycles the riff from “Take Me Out”).

In a rockier vein, “Evil And A Heathen” stomps like Iggy Pop circa Lust For Life. But You Could Have’s only real departure is “Fade Together,” a piano ballad whose ebbing waltz-time rhythm gorgeously matches the langorous nihilism of the lyric, which could be about a suicide pact, or sharing a needle, but either way is alluring and disturbing in equal measure.

“Fade” is far and away the best thing on the record, in large part because it’s the least Franz Ferdinand-like. The song makes you wonder what this group could achieve if they actually pushed themselves, and the envelope, a wee bit, in the spirit of the art-rock ancestors--Roxy, Bowie, Wire, Gang of Four, Josef K--they either invoke or echo sonically. Art-into-pop should be about vision and ambition, over-reach and the possibility of falling flat on your face. So here’s hoping for a torturously difficult third album.

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