Franz Ferdinand does enough to remain an intriguing band.
Fifteen years have passed since Franz Ferdinand materialized on the strength of two singles, with “Darts of Pleasure” opening the way for the scene-defining “Take Me Out.” The Scottish rockers broadened their version of the ’00s dance-punk sound, moving through energetic art-rock and matching smart couplets with a sound that kept its brightness. After four albums, the departure of guitarist and founding member Nick McCarthy, and a reasonably lengthy gap between releases—their last album coming with 2013’s Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action—the group releases Always Ascending almost as a fresh start. Years removed from their inescapable hit, and venturing into new sonic territory for the band, Franz Ferdinand has the chance to make a new mark, but they only sort of do.
Production-wise, the album is almost flawless. The group, even in its new iteration, knows what works for them: that new wave sense of structure, indie-rock you can dance to and a pop sheen that glistens like sweat. The band remains tight, precisely setting intricate grooves rather than settling in to something too broadly methodical.
Too often, though, the album sounds like a glossy retread. Despite the band’s intentions, Always Ascending comes off more like a reunion tour rather than a new era. The album lacks a defining moment, something to come back to. While both the title track and “Paper Cages” provide single-worthy minutes, neither offers the personal vulnerability that could set them apart. The album could use a track with the attitude or time-sensitivity of a “Take Me Out,” or a song clearly invested in its moment.
“Huck and Jim” comes closest to examining our present point in time. Frontman Alex Kapranos suggests a wide look at the US, but the ’90s rock never lets the song take off. If the group wants to tell its transatlantic neighbors about the UK’s health care system, as the chorus suggests, it needs to package the conversation in something more engaging and be willing to elaborate on that point. “The Academy Award” stumbles, too, though here the sonics captivate while the lyrics miss. “The Academy Award for Good Times goes to you” makes for too goofy of a chorus for any subtlety in the song to be worth pursuing.
These moments disappoint because the album’s first four tracks do show the band skillfully moving into new space. The songwriting is patient; “Always Ascending” takes its time moving into a modern club number that still nods to its roots. “Lazy Boy” has a memorable bass hook and a distinctive atmosphere that lets the singer’s audible smirk reveal some joy in a mannered indolence. Both “Paper Cages” and “Finally” have some fun in their grooves while playing with textures, but the album just loses traction after that. With Always Ascending, Franz Ferdinand does enough to remain an intriguing band, expanding upon their polished precision by venturing into a few new directions, but they haven’t managed to make themselves sound vital.