The release of Franz Ferdinand (#84) in February 2004 made Franz Ferdinand global superstars. It was listed in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die; it won the 2004 Mercury Prize; and it spawned 5 hit singles, including 'Take Me Out' which hit #3 in the UK. Faced with such a monolithic success - something not usually accorded to debut albums - the band spent the remainder of 2004 consolidating their success on the live circuit, playing festivals and touring at a frenetic pace. In 2005, having stated in interviews their intention to follow up rapidly, the band retreated to the studio, demoing new material at the V Festival in August.
We open this much-anticipated follow-up with 'The Fallen'. At once, all the characteristics of Franz Ferdinand at their best are there: Paul Thompson's dynamic drumming, razor-sharp riffs, art school sensibility and a sense of humour. Here the lyrics are cleverer than before: Some say ya' troubled boy/ Just because you like to destroy/ All the things that bring the idiots joy/ Well, what's wrong with a little destruction? This is a brilliant, vibrant and lively start, which entertains you enough to make you dance, but treats you as an erudite human being instead of just some thug in tight jeans.
'Do You Want To' is another fine example of bombastic pop-rock, something which Franz Ferdinand do better than most in the 21st century. As on 'Take Me Out', there is a monumental tempo change part way through, but once again it's completely seamless. Alex Kapranos simplifies the lyrics but his delivery comes with a sense of purpose and sophistication, hidden behind a cheeky smile. Nick McCarthy's riffs are excellent and Bob Hardy's bass work on the verses is very effective. It's an intelligent pop song, one which flatters you as you bounce around the room.
Having made you dance incessantly until now, you are barely given time to breathe before it starts all over again. 'This Boy' begins with some lightning-quick snare work from Thompson over McCarthy's guitar, before cutting out as Kapranos strides up and drawls Yeah into the mike. It's effortlessly cool and yet relentless - while Franz Ferdinand carries you along at a steady pace, this feels like you're being kicked along like a football - and, unlike in real life, it feels good.
'Walk Away' is the second single culled from the album, and again it's a very fine effort. This has a 1960s feel to it; Kapranos is singing like his hero Ray Davies. McCarthy and Thompson are again on fine form, and leave sufficient space for both Kapranos and the acoustic part which creeps into the mix under all the electric paraphernalia. The final lines are quite strange, mind: The stab of a stiletto on a silent night/ Stalin smiles and Hitler laughs/ Churchill claps Mao Tse Tung on the back. I'm sorry?
'Evil And A Heathen' continues the promising trend set by its predecessors, as bombastics and heavy as the others. However, it's perhaps a good thing that this is only 2:05 long, as this is the first song in which we see the effect and the mood of the song overtaking the actual content. Because it's such a short and punchy song this doesn't really matter; had the band chosen to make this one of the longer track, it would have run out of steam pretty quickly.
'You're The Reason I'm Leaving' falls into a different kind of trap. This may have all the guitar- and drum-based ingredients of a Franz classic, but it has nowhere near enough substance. Many of the lyrics are padded out by repitition, and the riffs are a lot less eye- (or ear-)catching. McCarthy seems to have detuned his guitar because his solo from 1:27 onwards sounds terrible. This track is like a lot of modern indie music - all about looks and prancing around in an arty pair of skintight jeans, with no room for proper musicianship.
No matter, though, because it's soon over. Now we come to something completely different. 'Eleanor Put Your Boots On' sees the introduction of a piano alongside the acoustic. This creates a down-toned mood, which is brilliant for two reasons. One, it demonstrates the range of Franz Ferdinand as a band - it shows that they are not all about snazzy pop music. And two, this creates the perfect space for Kapranos' voice, with its Glaswegian tinge and inherent awkwardness. It becomes tender. This is like a better, more sophisticated version of 'Move On Now' by Hard-Fi, not just because Kapranos can sing better, but because it's completely unexpected. It's a marvellous track.
'Well That Was Easy' is yet another 3-minute indie pop song. They may well be trying harder here than on 'You're The Reason I'm Leaving', but throwing in a token change in time signature won't do it alone. As before, it feels way too casual - you can't dance to this one. But the worst bit about this track comes in the last minute - the repetition of that was easy, but I still miss you becomes so stependously garbled that you want to rip the CD in half as if it had been rinsed.
'What You Meant' is heaps better, returning us to the killer licks and lyrics of Franz at their best. Hardy is brutally strong on the bass, Thompson's drumming is energetic and the whole band is tight and flamboyant at the same time. The chorus may well be simple, but sometimes being overcomplicated spoils things. The third verse is a cracker: If we were feckless we'd be fine/ Sucking hard on our innocence/ But we've been bright enough to climb/ Been left as bleckened filament. Kapranos drawls these lines out with such grace and brio, it's a joy to listen to.
One of the more over-used tracks on here, 'I'm Your Villain' has a great, if now hackneyed intro. Again the bass is more prominent than before; again it's dragged along by McCarthy's razor-sharp strumming; and again it packs a few surprises along the way. No sooner have you gotten used to the snails'-pace verse than the 'chorus' comes at you at machine-gun speed, knocking you back about two feet. Drumming connoisseurs will notice that Thompson gets a lot more room to improvise his fills here, and while they don't always work, they do at least add variety.
The title track is yet another punchy, stricken number. The lyrics are like a drawn-out version of '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' in the way that Kapranos decries the media and advertising: Because she wears this and/ He said that and/ If you get some of these/ It'll all be alright. But while that had an ostentatious air to it - it was the 1960s, remember - at the heart of this track is an arty sense of humour; the very way Kapranos says the word earpiece is bizarre.
'Fade Together' takes the successful musicality of 'Eleanor Put Your Boots On' (i.e. acoustic guitar and piano) and combines them again in a slightly different proportion. This creates another wonderful song, but not just because it's against type. Taken outside of the album, the song is an outstanding testament to British music. It has the eccentricity and tenderness of Nick Drake, with the melodic qualities of Paul McCartney at his peak. 'Outsiders', meanwhile, is overblown, over-complicated and over-long. The very production of this feels sprawling and drawn out, and the wierd, annoying electronica touches are just plain... stupid.
Although it received nowhere near as enough critical acclaim as its predecessor, You Could Have It So Much Better is an improvement from Franz Ferdinand. Partially, this is because the sound which made them a success in 2004 has been consolidated and nailed down, making the outfit as tight as possible. The big danger with bands at this stage is that their output tends to become formulaic, with albums becoming more about mood and style, and less about good songs. It happened to ELO, it's happening to Hard-Fi, but here it is avoided. Just. If this album did not have such brilliant tracks as 'Eleanor Put Your Boots On' and 'Fade Together', then listeners would feel cheated of Franz' real quality, and the album would live up to its name. In all, though, this is a bombastic, brilliant effort from Kapranos et al, which only goes to prove how much British music needs them to bring out a new album soon.