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My youth, like anyone else’s, is a story in which certain artists are inseparable from the telling of that story. Some of these artists are perennial features of most people’s lives, universally appreciated as integral to their respective canon and are therefore inescapable and essential. In the world of music, these figures come in the form of titans like The Beatles and Bob Dylan, artists whose influence is deeply integrated into much of cultural life since. Conversely, a lot of music that we have a deeply personal relationship with is not so iconic and much more relevant to a specific period of time. These artists best capture a certain sound that was en vogue at some precise moment, a moment that becomes firmly implanted in the sensibility of those at an impressionable moment in their development. Those years for me were the mid to late 2000s. They were the years of Franz Ferdinand and MGMT, years in which their cultural grip has never been more tight or more apparent.
Franz Ferdinand and MGMT represent two chapters in indie rock’s evolution both sonically and as a cultural force. And like all things indie rock this is also a story of decline, of an extreme high and uncertain lows. Such narratives are timeless and not purely just of this moment but few acts better represent the travails of what it means to be an ‘indie’ band over the last decade or so than these two. It’s certainly a nice coincidence that both these bands just happen to release new material in such a short span of each other (“Always Ascending” for Franz Ferdinand, “Little Dark Age” for MGMT) but this circumstance only highlights further the unique yet shared platform on which both these groups stand. They make very different kinds of music but both share a similar history and, it would appear, a similar future. They’re both poised for a comeback of sorts, both acts responding to very similar realities of past and present.
Let’s clarify this picture a little with context. In 2004 Franz Ferdinand released their self-titled debut album which launched not only their own careers but helped propel guitar driven music right back into the cultural spotlight again. Usually this is a conversation that revolves around bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes but a counterargument can be made that no two groups are more important to rock in the early 2000s than The Killers and Franz Ferdinand. You can’t undersell how big these two acts were when they both released their debut albums in 2004, how totally they both catapulted indie rock to a place of cultural domination again. Listening to Franz Ferdinand now is very much a journey of nostalgia but this is an album of undeniable hook-filled monsters which are simultaneously dated and fresh as hell. There’s a reason that a song like “Take Me Out” became so inescapable on MTV. Their debut album is music that is dripping in sex and swagger, all posturing and self-conscious cool to the point of so uncool that it’s cool again. It is 2004 captured in a LP, for better and for worse.
Franz Ferdinand are a singles band. They don’t really do albums, an argument that isn’t intended to be at all derogatory considering how great and successful some of these singles were. This was music that did nothing new, that was transparently slapping on a modern veneer to music that was directly mimicking past influences like Blondie and Talking Heads. But put “Take Me Out” on at full volume and it blows all such quibbles out of the water. It’s a glorious testament to the nervous, jittery, riff-based triumphs that indie rock was capable of at the time that haven’t really been matched since, not even by Franz Ferdinand themselves. Their second album You Could Have It So Much couldn’t capture the same level of excitement that their debut did, either musically or culturally, but it also boasted great singles and charted higher than Franz Ferdinand did in both the UK and the US. It’s a strong follow-up that has aged even worse than their first with clear signs of fatigue all over the songwriting. They were still on top but a change was coming in the shape of MGMT.
The indie-rock of the early to mid 2000s was built on revivalism, rock music that didn’t look to innovate, but instead replicated sounds that had been around for years. The next logical step for this movement as it rose in cultural ubiquity was to further and further embrace pop and to leave rock out of the equation entirely. MGMT were a new kind of indie rock, one more progressive and stranger than others around at the time. Their brand of trippy electric-pop was the sound that would define the next generation of indie artists, an influence that is apparent to this day even if it has faded considerably. Their 2007 debut Oracular Spectacular is undoubtedly one of the most important records to anyone who is currently in their twenties, an album that connected with everyone. Artsy kids liked it, party kids liked it, jocks liked it. It was everywhere and songs like “Time To Pretend” and “Kids” deserve their reputation as some of the finest pop songs of the last twenty years or so. MGMT were college kids with obvious aspirations to make something other than pop but what hits they did generate became definitive in a way that even true pop artists rarely achieve.
The spacey stoner rock of Oracular Spectacular’s back half is not what garnered MGMT such a devoted following but it does better represent the goals of the group than their breakout hits do. The duo behind MGMT, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, have always seemed uncomfortable with their success, an image that is bolstered by the uncommercial inclinations of their 2010 album Congratulations. Congratulations was pretty much universally and unfairly received as a disappointment, an album that doesn’t have anything like the hits on their debut but is generally a pleasant, eccentric listen which provides plenty in the way of earworms. Congratulations didn’t make much noise but it didn’t need to. Oracular Spectacular changed things, creating a new world that everyone had to make sense of. Both Franz Ferdinand and MGMT’s difficulties are related to this fact.
The problem with defining a moment is that moments end. What do you do after the scene with which you are inseparable is over? Franz Ferdinand have never made much sense outside of the period 2004 to 2007. Franz Ferdinand were retro when they were new, and ageing just meant getting older. Their releases since have struggled to connect in any meaningful ways, only really working in fits and bursts. Their third record Tonight: Franz Ferdinand is a decent album which suffers from a clear identity crises that sounds most comfortable when replicating the typical sound that the group had been famed for. This explains the general back to basics approach of their fourth album Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action, a disappointing effort that seemed to suggest that Franz Ferdinand have no real place in a post MGMT world. When the freshest music you’ve made comes from collaborating with Sparks, a band who are well into a forty year career, it suggests that maybe you don’t have much to add to the culture anymore.
Similarly, MGMT have, whether rightly or wrongly, always been perceived as responding to the freak success of their debut album. It’s very much possible that the duo are not nearly as concerned with Oracular Spectacle as other people are but it’s hard to not listen to their third album MGMT and not hear it as the sound of a group that has no idea who exactly they are. It’s a mess, somehow both lacking ideas and overstuffed. It’s an album whose most consistent quality is uncertainty, clearly afraid to attempt anything as commercial as some of their earlier work but not completely committing to atmospheric strangeness. Their long break (MGMT came out in 2013) is strong evidence of their need to regroup, to take time away to rediscover who they are and who they could be. Their absence in a world they helped to create, a world in which Portugal. The Man recently scored a huge hit with the MGMT influenced “Feel It Still”, is conspicuous. But now they are back along with Franz Ferdinand, both of whom seem ready to start again.
It’s a relief that “Always Ascending” and “Little Dark Age” are good songs but it’s not what makes them most notable. What’s striking about these two songs is what it suggests for these two former huge acts who have struggled for relevance for years. As noted, these are good songs. “Little Dark Age” is a little goth oddity that is deceptively catchy and propulsive, utilising 80’s synth and bass to propulsive effect. “Always Ascending” is a classic Franz Ferdinand song but one more disco than anything they’ve done before, a song that starts off as a jam before whipping up into a full on frenzy. It’s pure delirium and infectious fun, something that improves with every listen. These are two very different songs but what they share is purpose. They’re reinventions, fresh starts for groups that have been lost for a minute. It’s unclear if their subsequent albums will fulfill the promise of these songs but that promise, which has been lacking from their music, is there. That’s meaningful.
MGMT’s music following their debut has always registered as somewhat anxious, desperate to consistently upend expectations, especially commercial ones. This in and of itself is fine except when it produces music as muddied and unpleasant as “Your Life Is A Lie”. Franz Ferdinand have never been that self-conscious but their music has also been defined by uncertainty for many years. Neither of these groups seemed willing or capable of replicating their early success and, whether they attempted to or not, this success produced an identity crisis in their music that has acted as a detriment to their music for years. Now it seems that MGMT and Franz Ferdinand aren’t chasing or running from that relevance. They’re not making music as MGMT or Franz Ferdinand. They’re just making music. Hopefully we’ll get more like it.