Franz Ferdinand is playful, if not depthful, with ‘Always Ascending’

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

In a way, everything has changed — and nothing has.

That seems to be the message the members of Franz Ferdinand broadcast with their latest album, Always Ascending. In a way, they’re right. Founding guitarist Nick McCarthy has departed, taking with him a spark of the indie-rock bombast that launched the band to fame. And yet, despite the flood of new noises decorating and garnishing this album, it is built with the same pieces that have constituted every Franz Ferdinand album to date. As far as anyone can tell, that’s exactly how frontman Alex Kapranos wants it.

Always Ascending is Franz Ferdinand’s Gameshow à la Two Door Cinema Club — a means of imbuing its tried-and-true indie stylings with a sizzle of synthesizer arpeggiation.

For the most part, it’s successful. Always Ascending is a lighthearted album, full of quips and jabs — take, for example, “We’re going to America, we’re gonna tell them about the NHS” on album-highlight “Huck and Jim” — and a nicely varied use of keyboards, even dipping into early Muse-era scales on occasion.

At the same time, it’s an album that, for all its newness, is dogged by the nagging suspicion that Franz Ferdinand is still playing it safe. The band sounds like it’s having fun, which is nice. But the “reinvention” it purports over the course of a full listen reveals itself to be more superficial than deeply rooted.

“Paper Cages,” for instance, is the album’s “Take Me Out” — it opens with a brief uptempo section before dropping into a downbeat-heavy riff featuring a Pink Floyd-inspired baseline. But it’s also a few critical beats per minute slower than its predecessor, leaving it sounding tired.

At odds with its title, the album is a set of promising steps upward paired with frustrating steps back down. This quality is portrayed not just between songs, but sometimes back-to-back within a single track — “Feel The Love Go” features a chorus consisting only of the monotonously repetitive “Why don’t you come over here,” but also leaps into a silly, enjoyable saxophone solo that evokes imagery of a player onstage dropping to their knees with gusto, lofting their sax above them.

Other times, the playful lyrical constructs come across as lazy. “Finally I found my people, found the people who were meant to be found by me,” Kapranos sings on “Finally,” resembling a student trying to reach word count on an essay. Perhaps that makes sense — Kapranos has already dedicated a song to his purported laziness and his embrace of it.

For a lot of people, people for whom “Take Me Out” and “No You Girls” were the rhythms of a sharp-edge-guitar headbanging dance party at every concert and house party, Always Ascending might be too far afield to scratch the same itch. But there’s a limit to how far such complaints can go. Always Ascending may not be a revolution, but it is a revival. While it might not contain the magic, per se, of some of the band’s early hits, it does contain some of the mojo that’s made the Glasgow group distinctive and celebrated for more than a decade.

Contact Imad Pasha at [email protected]. Tweet him at @prappleizer.