It’s always interesting to see how a band can cope with personnel changes. There’s no doubt that Nick McCarthy was essential to the success of the Glaswegian band (the fact that the band had to replace him with two new members speaks for itself), therefore I approached this record with equal measures of hope and fear. But we’re talking about one of the most consistent bands on the indie scene, a band that is yet to release a bad album. Always Ascending is NOT that album. Even though you can see a slight decrease in quality.
The setlist can be divided into three groups: the pretty good (but not flawless) opening sequence, the rather dull and skippable middle part and the absolutelty gorgeous final three tracks. Let’s start with what went wrong here: theatrical The Academy Award sounds like it was heavily inspired by the recent collaboration between Franz Ferdinand and Sparks, but it’s lacking that lightness that the Mael brothers have brought. Instead, it comes off pretty boring, and feels like the worst track on the album (the lyrics are quite interesting though, and the Show me the body wordplay is very clever – too bad the song quality doesn’t quite match the words’). Lois Lane is kinda ok, but it could really use a strong guitar punch (especially in the coda). Meanwhile, Huck and Jim features a really weird chorus that sounds nothing like I would have expected from them – I’m still kinda getting used to that track, maybe at some point I’ll change my mind about it.
Alright, moving on to the opening tracks (I’m sorry for the order, but it’s really easier for me to write like that). The title track has this odd thing about it – it seems like a couple of sketches from different songs were glued together, hoping that it would stick. For the most part it does, but some segments of this song are really contrasting with each other, creating a weird, jarring feeling. It was a great choice for a lead single, because it showcases the more synth-driven approach the band has taken on this album. Plus, it works out really well as the opening track. Meanwhile, Lazy Boy initially seems relatively simple, but the boys are really messing with the rhythm here – that makes it so brilliantly unpredictable. I also love the guitar tones in this song – they sound like they were taken straight out of their 2004 debut. Paper Cages has a truly wonderful chorus, but the verses could really use… something. There is so much space there that they seem empty. Although it makes the chorus shine even brighter by comparision.
Now, let’s talk about the closing songs, because that is where Kapranos and company really shine – Glimpse of Love, taken straight out of an 80s disco is a beautiful earworm covered in sparkling synths – this might be the next single. Feel the Love Go (quite possibly the best song on the album) starts off with a simple, Ulysses-like bassline, then proceeds into a classic Tonight-era Franz song, but… just before the 3rd minute mark, suddenly the sax kicks in and the song goes absolutely batshit crazy. That has to be one of my favourite music moments of 2018. The ethereal closer Slow Don’t Kill Me Slow is great in its own right, and serves as a really nice conclusion.
Uneven? Maybe. Maybe even a little chaotic, defenitely their least cohesive album to date. But despite all its flaws, Always Ascending is the sound of a band determined to reinvent themselves, and looking into the future with hope and optimism.