My favourite albums are almost always those that seem to create their own universe. You put them on and are transported somewhere else, where the laws of physics operate differently. Always Ascending isn’t an instant classic, but from the opening chords of its title track it achieves a similar feat. It marries elegant music with wonderfully playful lyrics: “Cirrus caress you, cumulous kiss you, raindrops of crystal whisper we’ll miss you back home”. For eighty seconds your feet lift off the ground and you float up through the clouds, before a trademark Franz Ferdinand riff slams you onto some alien dancefloor.
However, the title track is a singular thing, quite different in mood from the rest of the album. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – especially for a band as esoteric as Franz Ferdinand, who often seem to change genre multiple times in one song – but seems a waste considering the strength of the opening. Why wouldn’t you want to stay and explore this world a little longer? As always, Franz Ferdinand’s endless creative energy comes as a blessing and a curse. For nearly forty minutes they serve up some of the most unique music around, but, trying to fit as many ideas as possible into its runtime, ruin any chance they might have had at cohesion.
Lazy Boy is a curious little number. Initially hard to pin down thanks to its shifting rhythm and drawn out introduction, it unfurls into a deceptively catchy hook. At first it seems laughably simply – the lyrics are to thank for this – but once you pick up the subtleties of its structure you’ll be humming it as best as you can around the house.
Paper Cages hits more immediately, packed full of inventive hooks and riffs. Singer Alex Kapranos hits his stride here, playing with the rhythm until he and the backing vocals echo each other in a brilliant call-and-response fashion that packs the track with energy. This track also houses some of the best guitar work on the record, with jagged bursts of distortion and syncopated rhythm parts.
Unfortunately, it is in the middle that the record sags. Reaching too hard for clever metaphors and social commentary, Kapranos hits on a bizarre hook in The Academy Award: “The Academy Award for good times goes to you”. At first I almost felt that this was cleverly droll, but the more I listen, the more it falls flat. Nevertheless, the song itself does nothing particularly exciting – low-tempo but almost emotionless. In a word, boring. Lois Lane is much the same. Glimpse of Love at least works its way from vapid chorus to infectious bridge.
Huck and Jim is the only track where this style really works for me. As a parody of holier-than-thou Brits who lecture Americans on their every political move (a certain Piers comes to mind), it takes you on a whistle-stop tour of genres and lyrical asides. “We’re going to America,” Kapranos croons as grungey guitars crunch through a simple progression. “We’re gonna tell them bout the NHS”.
The album does at least end on a high note. Feel The Love Go explodes from an LCD Soundsystem inspired synth line into their own inimitable style. It boasts a surprising key change and skittish saxophone parts, and has to go down as one of the best tracks the outfit has written in many years. Closing track Slow Don’t Kill Me Slow isn’t remarkable by any means, but after this chaos it is a fitting denouement, tender and grand.
On the whole, while I do wish that as an album Always Ascending resembled its title track more than it does, focusing on a cohesive and immersive experience, it is still full of fantastic and above all else original songs. The low points are more than made up for by the highs (and are themselves at least interesting on the first few listens). Definitely one of the stronger albums so far this year.