As an album, Always Ascending is a frustrating experience. Its songs feature protagonists who suffer disappointment, loneliness, and rejection. Behind those danceable hooks and Alex Kapranos signature baritone is a collection of tracks that seem to depict a fading frontier, borrowing from genres that have long since been in their heyday. Its an apt metaphor for a band that has seen better days, and while Always Ascending is often enjoyable, its not quite enough to lift Franz Ferdinand out of their late-career malaise.
The album opens with a modern take on I Cant Get No Satisfaction in Always Ascending, as Kapranos deadpans the verse before a call and response chorus kicks in: never gonna resolve / never gonna resolve. True to their word, the band never fully realises the songs potential, as it repeats itself ad nauseum before a blooming synth seems to lead up into the clouds. Lazy Boy is just as impotent: Im gonna get up / Get up never. The disco flair and New Order beats are enjoyable but skin deep, and Kapranos, never the most expressive vocalist, doesnt give these songs the hard sell they need. Paper Cages seems to reach the logical limit of these songs frustration, as neon synths and jazzy pianos slink around limply. Like the songs protagonist, the album seems to long to step out of its cage, but seems unable to.
All of which makes Finally, the albums first real triumph, so successful. Its the first ray of sunshine yet, as Kapranos delights in belonging: Finally I found my people / Found the people that were meant to be found. Maybe its because this song is closer to the post-punk of the bands early years that it works so well, but the confident strut of the verse and funky chorus injects some sunshine into whats so far been a dreary and cloistered album. In an album that often seems remarkably opaque, its a breath of fresh air.
The following sequence of tracks return us to equilibrium. The Academy Award hinges on a weak metaphor to make a point about the lies we tell ourselves, while Lois Lane is a character study of the fictional journalist that leaves out the Man of Steel. Its refrain, At the over 30s singles night / Its bleak, is almost too pat of a description of the album and the band behind it. Huck and Jim is inventive but messy, as a sinister guitar churn leads loosely between musical motifs as Kapranos tells us that there is no down / somethings gone and youre missing it now. Things pick up a little in the image-obsessed Glimpse of Love, which tells the story of a model in love with her own reflection. Its catwalk-ready and danceable, avoiding the doom and gloom of many of the albums tracks.
The second high water mark of the album comes in Feel the Love Go, which pairs a Kraftwerkian backbeat with a delightful saxophone solo and a catchy refrain that matches the albums depressing tone without being too depressing itself. The albums closer, in comparison, is anticlimactic, reaching for a level of gravitas the band hasnt earned. It demands too much from Kapranos as a vocalist and ticks away at too low a speed: this is not a band that can pull off a ballad, at least not anymore.
Always Ascending is not without its highlights, but its repeated attempts at relevance fall short. You wouldnt refuse to dance to this music at a party or a concert, but its not going on anyones mixtapes anytime soon.
Words by Max James Hill