Franz Ferdinand: The North Sea sings

Franz Ferdinand apparently spent the four years since their last release listening to Blondie’s “Call Me” on an endless loop and watching Big 80s marathons — in Norway.

Not that I’m complaining. Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action (Domino) is the best thing the Glasgow band has ever recorded, a swoony plunge into the coolly beguiling depths of Eurodisco-immersed alterna-dance. It’s a logical progression from their last CD,  Tonight, which was an ambitious, disco-flecked concept album about one long night’s search for sex, or maybe more, from the dark of the club to the cold light of day. Although the band rose to fame on the stabby art-punk of its self-titled 2004 debut (featuring the titanically popular single “Take Me Out”)  and its 2005 followup You Could Have It So Much Better, they took a long layoff to record what would be Tonight, effectively stalling the momentum of their career in an industry where the new-new thing appears twice a day, every day,  leaving fans wondering if the band had dissolved for good.

After their second album, I made the mistake of thinking of Franz Ferdinand as a rock band; songs with insistent hooks or alluring imagery (the chorus of “Take Me Out,” the gay dancefloor seduction of “Michael”) gave you something memorable to latch onto,  the rest were an enjoyable blur. And while charismatic frontman Alex Kapranos has charm and simmering sexual energy to spare, with a bit of David Bowie drama and Bryan Ferry langour in his louche baritone, his furious intelligence and often cruelly self-assesing lyrics tended to get lost in the propulsion and swagger.

After You Can Have It So Much Better, the band was right to take its time figuring itself out. The disco synth-burbles of Tonight were the answer. Set the time machine for 1979, and suddenly, Franz Ferdinand makes perfect sense. Kapranos’s voice, his sexually compelling combination of remoteness, pale insouciance and vulnerability, all fall into context; you can imagine him as the sensitive lad in impeccably-cut suits swanning around in exclusive discos, sending back witty dispatches about the cuisines he’s sampled on his far-flung travels. (Kapranos actually did this in a series of delightful food columns for The Guardian, collected in the book Sound Bites).

Right Thoughts continues Franz Ferdinand’s dance odyssey, coloring its sound with kisses and rolling it in designer sheets. They’re channeling Blondie circa 1979-81 here, echoing the big, metallic dance-punk of the under-appreciated Eat to the Beat album (1979) crossed with the seminal hard-edged disco of “Call Me” (which Franz cover in concert) and the new wave-funk of “Rapture.”  There’s also a dash of mid-’70s Bowie in the way the production marries the human heat of rock guitars to the glittering chill of technology, and a spectacular broad daylight heist of the rhythm line from the Clash’s “This is Radio Clash” (“Evil Eye”).

Not that it’s all backwards-referencing;  being a canny conoisseur of evolving dance modes, Kapranos shares production (under the name “Prince House Rabbit”) with dance-pop, technopop and nu disco royalty Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, Bjorn Yttling (of Sweden’s Peter Bjorn and John) and Todd Terje,  the Norwegian DJ and editing artist. Befitting the Scandinavian influence, the lyrics keep coming back around to existentialist themes:  the searcher’s hunger to find life’s meaning, the skeptic’s inability to believe in a higher power. Anxiety jitters through the long-distance relationship in “Bullet”; loneliness washes over the end of an affair in “The Universe Expanded”;  madness explodes in the manic “Treason! Animals.”  Death, of course, is a supporting player.  On “Fresh Strawberries,” Kapranos sings, “We are fresh strawberries/ Fresh burst of red strawberries/ Ripe, turning riper in the bowl/ We will soon be rotten/We will all be forgotten/Half-remembered rumours of the old.” He’s referring to youth and beauty and all of human existence, of course, but there’s a tongue-in-cheek subtext, too, given Franz Ferdinand’s long absence between releases.

But, I won’t lie:  The reason I’m completely addicted to Right Thoughts isn’t its lyrics, although you have to love Kapranos for the punning title “Treason! Animals,” and the vibrator references hiding in plain sight on “Bullet,” and for going all-in with the ’70s vibe in the “key party” analogy of “Brief Encounters.” No, I’m mainly in thrall to the sadistically catchy choruses, and the dance beats that I wish could stretch on and on into infinity. “Stand on the Horizon,” a Kapranos/Terje co-production, has replaced Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” as the retro-disco song I want to live inside. I can’t stop listening to this track; I wake up with the swirling, multiply-overdubbed harmonies of the coda in my head:  “The North Sea sings/ ‘Won’t you come to me baby?’/ The North Sea Singing/ ‘Won’t you come to me?”  The four-minute album version isn’t long enough;  luckily, there’s a delirious eight-minute Terje remix available on The North Sea EP, which also includes an extended Terje remix of  “Evil Eye.”

Right Thoughts closes with Kapranos (who’s an atheist) unflinchingly imagining his own funeral and the nothingness beyond in “Goodbye Lovers and Friends,” leaving a litany of instructions:  “I hope you didn’t bring flowers/ Hope you didn’t write a poem/Hope you remember every fight” . . . “Don’t give me virtues that I never had.” The snaky guitar winding  around the verses underscores the venom in Kapranos’s brutal anti-romanticism.  “You can laugh as if we’re still together/ But this really is the end,” is the CD’s last line. If this is also Franz Ferdinand’s suicide note and the band really has made its last record together (perish the thought), at least the radiant, timeless dance grooves of Right Thoughts prove that they’ve taken Blondie’s advice from a track on Eat to the Beat to heart: “Die Young, Stay Pretty.”

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013