Franz Ferdinand occupy a curious position in music at the moment, namely that they're blamed for the raft of copycats and watering down wastrels that have followed in their sharp pressed, clean guitar attack footsteps. Nobody blames the Beatles for Freddie and the Dreamers; the Stone Roses were not chased out of town by folk waving placards of Northside, yet Tonight has been greeted with something of a resigned air. Maybe it's just bad timing what with the overriding press line currently being "landfill indie is dead, indie guitars are out, bring on a phalanx of girls with synths who've heard When Doves Cry/Slow/Only You", but given it was Franz who gave this stuff, along with a truckload of aphorisms and a whole new attitude that unlike many of their disciples successfully married the worlds of outsider acceptance and commercial potential, to the world. OK, reintroduced it technically. All the same, the air of Tonight shies away from the sound of You Could Have It So Much Better, which in retrospect while certainly not a bad album - more prone to filler and neutral gear than the still fine if much thinner than you remember it being debut but with its share of likeable barnstormers, Do You Want To not included - was broadly the same as said debut but toughened up not so much for the clubs as for the ampthitheatres. It's how far away it shies that's the issue.
Famously, Alex Kapranos wanted to make girls dance. That he still tries to do. He's always given the impression that Franz Ferdinand wouldn't specifically be anchored to this jerky punk-funk/post-punk thing, though, and while we're not going to go through the attempted production and style permutations as every piece you read about this album spends most of its length dredging back through it all you'd expect the band to subtly shift their dynamic into new shapes and areas. We're not sure the opener and single quite manages that, Ulysses essentially just a not too far from Kaiser Chiefs big stomping radio chorus attached to this:
And another thing - while we're eschewing what the album nearly was, it's worth reminding ourselves that Ulysses was the title of the song visitors to a London art gallery in late 2007 were invited to add their own interpretation of the drum track to. So much for the artsiness of artifact.
As for the rest of it... well, after Ulysses comes Turn It On, mooted as far back as the gigs introducing songs that ended up on You Could Have It So Much Better as the big synth track but, well, a big glam production, a hint of whirring synth, an attempt to eke out a Stooges riff at the end. Then No You Girls boasts a cocksure strut, a stalking bassline and a coy lyric before a huge repetitive chorus. Common to both, the gnawing feeling we've done all this in this band's company. Send Him Away tries at raga-like bouncing rhythm and then forgets to do anything with it so chooses to lapse back into what we're now calling That Chorus Style. Already there's no impression they've constantly tried to challenge themselves beyond getting some more analogue keyboards in just when we wanted them to redefine what Franz Ferdinand at heart are, like a self-appointed art school dandy band is supposed to. The art-pop for dancing girls thing done, this third album coming at a time when they need to prove themselves in the face of dwindling critical and commercial potential. Instead, more off-beats, more major key choruses, more lyrics about lust and nightclubs, more filler, more moments that should impress more than they do. It's like they didn't get the message about how pop isn't a dirty phrase any more. Why does Bite Hard sound so much like it's going to really take off and take the floor with it when it's clear it's going to lapse back into rote arch four to the floor, and sure enough it does?
There are better moments. What She Came From has the four-four beat and That Chorus but is slinkier, smarter in its lyrics because Kapranos isn't trying to rise above everyone else and just goes for the growling jugular, before even the band get bored after three minutes and embark on just racing each other to collapse at the finish. Live Alone is literally something from the first album we can't immediately place sped up and given a glitterball to hold above themselves. Finally, three tracks from the end, the band break out of their self-imposed box. The first is the least likely. Lucid Dreams sub-B-side quality in its initial version released quietly to radio last year, has had a radical makeover, much darker, backed by synth squelches and shorn of any desire to be sung along to with fists aloft by beery blokes at Reading. Then, two verses in, it turns into its own remix, full of dark bass plunges amid fragments of vocals and shards of guitar solo, then does away with everything that came before and heads deep into industrial house hell. Dream Again's pretty spacewalk burbles and tinkles are Brian Eno-like, either ambient-wise or in the slower moments of his indispensible first four solo albums, in its balladic construction, before Katherine Kiss Me is a pretty, personalised ballad reminiscent of nobody so much as James Yorkston.
And that just shows the rest up - even if it doesn't all have to be so outre, by this stage you feel that given where they came from they should be more comprehensively altering perceptions through textures and indoctrinating styles with further ideas. Until the last quarter, Tonight is an album that doesn't have the courage of its convictions so retreats back to where it feel safest, to what FM rock radio now constitutes in Britain. Franz Ferdinand, we thought you were far better than this.