You Could Have It So Much Better
t heart, rock ‘n’ roll is really just loud acting. Reality may have taken over TV, but when it comes to music we’re mostly still suckers for make-believe. Heck, even plucked-from-the-masses pop idol Kelly Clarkson had to release an actually great song that allowed her to play outside her homespun persona before she could be taken seriously as a legitimate force on the charts.
And that’s fine, because the version of you that you can conjure up in your head is always going to be cooler than the you that still gets acne and still stutters in front of girls. We’re obsessed with the personalities of our favorite musicians, but deep down we know it’s a highly unscientific method for figuring out who these people really are, which is why actually meeting an idol face-to-face is a secretly terrifying experience (I may just turn around and walk the other way if I ever run into Thom Yorke on the street to be perfectly honest with you).
Now, Franz Ferdinand (as a band and artistic entity rather than just a collection of four dudes) doesn’t seem to have a genuine bone in its body (again, pay attention to the pronoun). Nothing wrong there. Bryan Ferry and David Bowie and Mick Jagger and countless others have proven you can be ironic and emotionally detached and still make powerful, compelling art.
Trouble is, Franz Ferdinand kind of sucks at acting too. Here’s the crux of the matter—at some point, no matter how put-on your performance or how subversively insincere you want to be, you have to commit to something. On stage and screen it’s called losing yourself in the part. You can do that in music as well (Bowie’s made a legend of it), but the more common and effective strategy is simply to lose yourself in the song. As great a chameleon as Bowie was and is, the reason Ziggy Stardust and Young Americans are classics while Diamond Dogs is roundly deemed a misstep is mostly because one had Mick Ronson, one had Philly soul’s finest, and one was a concept album based on 1984.
Likewise, Franz’s second effort, You Could Have It So Much Better, is plagued by the same averseness to surrender that hamstrung their breakthrough eponymous debut. Alex Kapranos and his mates utilize the same chunky chords and hip-swiveling rhythm sections as Magnet-cover competition Interpol, The Killers, Bloc Party, and the Strokes, but while those bands are frequently willing to sacrifice their stylized façades in the face of a truly unifying moment of pop excellence (of course there’s “Evil,” “Mr. Brightside,” “Banquet,” and “Last Night” but also loads more), Franz always seems to pull back before making a similar leap of faith.
Besides the admitted world-beater “Take Me Out,” the debut was thinner than the iPod Nano you used to store the crappy live versions of the follow-up. Now that the studio’s on the shelves, the results are clearer but hardly more encouraging. First single “Do You Want To” is only memorable for the bit that sounds like The Beatles circa 1965—ditto leadoff cut “Fallen” and the Bob Plant-channeling “ooh-oohs” towards the end (certainly not the beginning where they sound like Kasabian). What’s left of those two songs is mostly charmless and contrived, the cheekily self-pleased sound of a band who seems desperate to convince you they don’t have a shred of distinctive personality. “This Boy” momentarily threatens to blast off into “Brightside” territory, but faster than you can say “Friedberger” we’re back into teeth-gnashingly smarmy mock-pop instead.
Speaking of Kapranos’ Fiery Furnaces-fronting main squeeze, she’s the subject of the surprisingly disarming “Eleanor Put Your Boots On.” Coupled with the preceding “Walk Away,” it makes a daring suggestion—are Franz perhaps better balladeers than dance-rockers? An even more interesting question—what does she see in him? Seriously though, I suppose there is a shared fondness for proper nouns (Kapranos riffs on Utrecht, Radio 4, the Kremlin, and Lake Michigan), but I can’t help thinking it’s a strange pairing considering Kapranos’ biggest hang-up appears to be his inability to risk making an ass of himself in order to make really fun pop music, which of course is Eleanor and Matthew’s raison d’etre.
Skipping over a couple of real stinkers like “Well That Was Easy” and “What You Meant” (the latter aiming for the glorious lyrical awfulness of Interpol with cringe-worthy pearls like “we must MDMA our sentiment”—the difference being I’d quote Paul Banks’ line about Fred Astaire and broken watches for laughs, but Kapranos’ worst couplets are just flatly embarrassing), the album actually finishes strong, which is why you’ve been thinking the grade at the top of the page was a cop-out for the past 750 words.
The title track is positively Buzzcocks-worthy, while “I’m Your Villain” is quality fake Pulp, with the lengthy intro here and on the closing “Outsiders” giving us hopeful indications that things like blissful sonics and rhythmic prowess (especially the bass on “Outsiders”) might finally mean more than questions of who blew who.