Britpop seems to rally itself once a decade, and it’s about that time again. The last round sputtered in the late ’90s — Oasis sunk by hubris insupportable without more ”Wonderwall”s, Radiohead and Blur choosing artiness over world domination (though Radiohead achieved it anyway). This latter strategy proved soundest: In pop as in politics, New Britannia is better suited to leading by progressive example than by American-style bullying.
Which brings us to Franz Ferdinand, who may or may not herald a new era of U.K. pop, but certainly make a fan long for one. Last year’s self-titled debut was familiar new-wave/garage revivalism that was still heads above the competition. The taut grooves were fairly irresistible, and singer Alex Kapranos was a louche charmer who never took himself too seriously. Among new rockers, they were sexier than even the Strokes; it’s no wonder their appearance in porn art film 9 Songs arrives in a postcoital glow.
You Could Have It So Much Better shows Franz Ferdinand working harder and sounding bigger, befitting their stature as rock’s saviors of the moment. But they remain amused by, and skeptical of, pop stardom. This could be a Scottish thing: Bands like Belle and Sebastian, Teenage Fanclub, and Kurt Cobain’s beloved Vaselines always made ”rock” with an arched eyebrow. So it goes with Better‘s opener, ”The Fallen,” a powerhouse collision of Beatles, Stones, and Kinks licks about Jesus (or a rock star with a Jesus complex). ”Do You Want To” is a Cars-style come-on in what sounds like a groupie’s voice. And ”Walk Away” is an ambivalent kiss-off that leaves the drama-queen singer with tear-smudged mascara and a sarcastic vision of history collapsing.
What’s remarkable is how Franz Ferdinand make their camp so compelling. The band’s tight, sometimes downright funky arrangements — powered by high-hat brutalizer Paul Thomson — certainly help. And Kapranos makes the most of an average voice, yelping and crooning and conjuring everyone from Ray Davies to David Byrne. He cares enough to make you care, even when you wonder how much he does. On the delicate ”Fade Together,” he aches for a great love to fade to a more manageable intensity. And on ”Eleanor Put Your Boots On,” surely (also?) about Kapranos’ girlfriend Eleanor Friedberger (of alt-rock quirk collective the Fiery Furnaces), he suggests she leap off the Coney Island roller coaster and fly to his side of the Atlantic — where he ”could be” waiting when she lands. Then again, he could not be. It’s a testament to his cheeky art that she’s likely to be flattered either way.