October 4, 2005

Franz Ferdinand offer listeners something Better

True to the art-rock label they have so indisputably earned over the past two years, Scottish quartet Franz Ferdinand said in interviews earlier this year that they had plans to release their second album under the title of Franz Ferdinand, keeping even the same sleeve design from their previous record. Then one of them suggested You Could Have It So Much Better (with Franz Ferdinand, it goes without saying), and the name stuck. This is a clever decision on behalf of the band, and not only because it does away with that pesky "how to tell the albums apart" problem. (Possible choices to date include "the first album" vs. "the second album," "the brown and orange one" vs. "the red and green and black one," or even "‘the one for girls to dance to" vs. "the one for girls to cry to"—the band's own descriptions, and somewhat accurate ones at that). The name change is also significant because the sounds of the discs are dissimilar enough to merit not being lumped under the same title.

From the first few bars of its opening track, "The Fallen," You Could Have It So Much Better is not only instantly recognizable as a Franz Ferdinand album, but also as something other than the eponymous debut, or even a faintly disguised, repetitive sequel to it. There are songs here that would have been completely out of place in the band's debut, but they earn their place in this album. The band's sound is richer, more lush and much more organic than it was before—they reputedly got tired of the clean, sharp nature of their first record and decided to branch out, hire a new producer, et cetera. "Eleanor Put Your Boots On" even has lead singer Alex Kapranos exchange a couple of words in the studio with guitarist Nick McCarthy before properly beginning; it turns out to be a slow piano and acoustic guitar-driven melody which, on the first couple of listens, does not appear to even belong on this record, much less on the first one. The same can be said, to a slightly lesser degree, of "Fade Together," the other remarkable slow song in a record that is not hesitant to steer away from the 3-minute danceable pop song.

If this evolution in sound appears a bit dodgy, there is always their first single, "Do You Want To" (and the accompanying video, which ought to be seen if only for the sake of Kapranos's facial expressions). Released nearly a month ago, it serves as a nice bridge between the old and the new, with that catchy chorus and those amusing, clever lyrics ("Your famous friend, well, I blew him before you") that helped launch the band to fame last year-—but it also begins to hint at the richer, fuller sounds that characterize this record. Odds are that the rest of the record is not going to sit well with anyone who finds this first, most approachable morsel unpalatable.

But the sound is not the only thing that sets the album apart from its predecessor. In the time between records, Franz Ferdinand have, if not discovered, then certainly embraced some measure of hedonism and smugness; "Well, That Was Easy," "I'm Your Villain," and "This Boy" are all prime examples of this. The lyrics are not always explicitly self-congratulatory, but the line "this boy is quite spectacular" has a certain self-satisfied ring to it that people would have been hard-pressed to find last year in "Take Me Out" or "Auf Acshe." These are songs about personages with the world at their feet, not lovelorn boys who "see her, but can't have her." This time around, Franz Ferdinand are settling for what they want and everyone else can go hang. "Some say you're troubled, boy / Just because you like to destroy / All the things that bring the idiots joy / Well, what's wrong with a little destruction?" are the first words Kapranos sings, and they set the tone for the rest of the record well enough, especially in comparison to the "Jacqueline was seventeen / working on a desk" that opened the band's first effort.

Of course, the true matter at hand is whether you are indeed having it so much better. And that is a hard question to answer. For all that the Scottish quartet has grown, the album lacks tightness; the title track is more forgettable than not, while "Evil and a Heathen" is not the only song that fails to inspire a strong reaction either way. But if the worst Franz Ferdinand can be accused of is not being fully cohesive in their second album, then things are really not so dire. The superlative might be somewhat unmerited, but we are definitely still having a better time with Franz Ferdinand than we would be without them.