Fans of Franz Ferdinand probably expected something different from the band’s new album Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action.
While 2005’s You Could Have It So Much Better was not exactly a step in the right direction — with drawn-out depressing attempts at ballads sharply contrasting the band’s eponymous 2004 debut — good old Franz showed us what they really had up their sleeves with the grandiose and operatic concept album Tonight: Franz Ferdinand. That is not to say that in the years following 2009 we have defined the band by some of its most complex and meticulous music, but, nevertheless, such blues/punk (a la Black Keys) would have been startling enough without the addition of the emotionally chaotic and depressing themes found on the latter half of Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action.
At first listen, the experience is slightly disorienting — the album begins in an earnest flurry of upbeat punk sensibilities, transitions into a keyboard-driven and warbling middle section and then spends the rest of its compact 35 minutes descending into a pit of self-deprecating cynicism. It might even be painful to experience — that is, if it weren’t so brilliant.
Right Action opens with a deceptive pair of bouncy, if anticipated, pieces of post-punk fare: “Right Action” and “Evil Eye” spend little time burning through a verse or two to get to equally straightforward choruses. “Right Action” sprinkles a guitar part reminiscent of Big Audio Dynamite with tiny morsels of dense bass-lines and synth parts, teasing the delectable, melancholy themes one has waiting for them at the other end of the LP. “Evil Eye” takes this a step further, maintaining an unsettling mix of minor chords, echoes and Halloween-ish space synths that mix with frontman Alex Kapranos’s angry verses and sensuous chorus to create a song as danceable as it is haunting.
“Love Illumination” plays out similarly, albeit with some help from a backing horn section and both guitar and keyboard solos. It serves as a reminder of what Franz Ferdinand has available to them now: The boys from Glasgow might still retain their punk roots and straightforward ideals, but production value is a cruel temptress who pokes her head through every seam of Right Action. The pure of heart may lament this development, but the shrewd critic recognizes that such changes are ultimately beneficial and are what has allowed for Franz Ferdinand’s previous successes. “Stand On the Horizon” shares similar complexities and features more keyboard parts and boasting guitar fills and riffs that evoke Clash-like ska elements, as well as the first bits of harmony and counter-melody on the LP.
The first drastic tonal change of the album is marked by “Fresh Strawberries,” a two-minute track that moves between eerie, murmuring verses and a lighthearted chorus. The song then transitions into a heavy guitar-driven section. Even though the song returns to its bubbly refrain, the alarming intermediate section is meticulous, deliberately used to startle the listener. The drastic nature of the shift elevates both the upbeat and the gloomy sections beyond the sum of their parts while driving the album down a notably darker path.
“Bullet” returns to a tighter and more compact style dominated by the guitars and Paul Thomson’s relentlessly barbaric drums. The song marks the last bit of optimism on Right Action. “Treason! Animals” may tend towards upbeat riffs and hooks, but Kapranos keeps the vocals weird and wooly, conjuring images of pre-punk outfits like The Troggs or Question Mark and the Mysterians. “The Universe Expanded” continues the trend, opening with a downright disturbing synthetic violin, equally unsettling vocals and a single-note guitar part that builds into a crescendo before ending in a bittersweet chorus.
After bizarre exchanges between themes of optimism and depression, the two final tracks act as fascinating bookends, complementing the exuberant “Right Action” and “Evil Eye” with a subtle anger and dejection unlike any other song on the album. “Brief Encounters” keeps the instrumental parts to a minimum, focusing on the catchy vocals, crooning away at something about “Car keys, lose your keys / Car keys, choose your keys.” There is a certain charm to the banality of it all.
If “Brief Encounters” is subtle gloom, “Goodbye Lovers and Friends” is outright rage, interspersed with lamentations for old comrades that don’t last for more than a chorus or two. The verses keep to Kapranos’s admission that “I know I can be obnoxious, oh! / Occasionally cruel / But only to the ones I love,” playing out like cold, heartless jabs at a lost lover or an unfaithful friend. By the end of the song, the sad chorus sounds less like a lamentation and more like a renunciation, ending the album on the bright and cheery notion that “this really is the end.”
The fascinating thing about Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action is that while it proves itself to be as high concept as its older siblings — its predecessor specifically — it is in no hurry to prove a point or to tell a story. Right Action isn’t a process or a cyclical round of leitmotifs — the album is a spectrum of emotions beginning with revelry and ending with near-suicidal despondency. Those just looking for party music and something to jam to will be alarmed by the direction Right Action takes. But for the brave of heart, Franz Ferdinand has always delivered peerlessly intelligent dance-punk, and this release is no different.