It has been 17 years, yes, 17 years – since American Football released their lone, self-titled album.
Such a long gap between records mayIt has been 17 years, yes, 17 years – since American Football released their lone, self-titled album.
Such a long gap between records may seem unusual for most musical acts, but for American Football, it made perfect sense.
The pioneering emo trio from Champaign, Illinois quickly disbanded after they released American Football – an album that received little to almost no attention during its initial release, but thanks to the global reach of the internet, American Football over time became a cult-classic and one of the most influential pieces of music in emo.
The twinkly guitars, uneven time signatures, and frontman Mike Kinsella’s whiny, innocent early 20s vocal delivery became an anthemic record for college kids of the same age going through breakups and the nostalgic memories of the end of summer transitioning into fall.
During American Football’s hiatus (1999-2014), the three members of the group went their separate ways. Kinsella remained an important staple to the emo music scene with his solo project, Owen – releasing several records under that title. Guitarist Steve Holmes worked an office job in Chicago, and drummer Steve Lamos would become and is still a professor at Colorado University.
In 2014, the band decided to reunite to sold out shows, something they never experienced their first time around. By then, it was evident how much people wanted an American Football reunion, and with crossed fingers, new music from them.
And that time is finally here. After releasing a couple teaser videos on the bands’ social media pages, the band dropped its’ second LP, once again titled American Football (LP2).
Before even listening to it, the album’s artwork is telling. The iconic house featured on the front of the first record is pictured again, but this time, we get an inside view of the house.
The symbolism is strong. The exterior image of the house was indicative for the bands’ college days: the now landmark house harbored many punk shows and parties in Champaign, and the illuminated ambience of the moon’s glow gives it such a strong nostalgic feeling for many suburban teenagers.
But the inside tells a different story on LP2. The interior shows an empty hallway leading to the front door; as if to remind us of what used to be, and the vacancy gives us a stroll down memory lane.
The nine songs on the album, as a whole, can best be described as American Football instrumentally, but Owen vocally – that might sound almost obvious considering the makeup of the band, but that really is as accurate as I can put this record in a nutshell – And I believe it’s worth stating that this sounds like American Football given their 17 year hiatus; almost any other band wouldn’t need that clarification, otherwise.
If we’re exclusively discussing American Football here, there is a noticeable difference between Kinsella’s voice on the first album and what can be heard on this LP. Long gone is the boyish howl from the first LP and a weathered, more mature sound comes from Kinsella on LP 2. It’s the voice we have become accustomed to since he has sung in the same low-crackling tone since the early 2000s in Owen.
For how tight the production and instruments sound on this record, it works. Imagining Mike’s current voice on the first American Football record wouldn’t have made it what the album became to be, as the lyrics on the first record called for a more adolescent type of style.
Instrumentally, there is a lot of math-rocky hammer-ons and unorthodox tunings that makes American Football one of the most unique outfits in emo. So unique, in fact, that no song is played in the same tuning on the album (per the band’s twitter page). “My Instincts are the Enemy” and “Desire Gets in the Way” are the most shining of examples which jockey for best songs on the album.
American Football also try to resurrect old tricks, too. The aforementioned “My Instincts are the enemy” bridge + outro strongly resembles “Honestly”, from the first LP, with an anxiety inducing chord progression. But this time around, Kinsella adds lyrics over the top of it, which is a testament to his songwriting skills.
“I Need a Drink (or Two or Three)” rehashes the elegant, simple trumpet notes from Lamos. The brass instrument doesn’t have the same emotional pull that the first album can entice, but it’s a nice touch nonetheless.
The hardest part about reviewing the new American Football record is trying not to compare it to the first, but it’s quite hard not to, because there is nothing else to base it off -- more importantly, because the first LP is so revered, it’s inevitably going to be matched up against it (i.e- anything The Strokes did after “Is This It?”). It also doesn’t help when you title the new album of the same as the last one. But the comparison is part of why Kinsella and company were at first reluctant to get the band back together to make new music, given how daunting it could be to follow up American Football amidst the opinions of everyone who will say “it’s not like the old American Football!”
But this album’s personality is easy going and is quite comfortable with itself -- much like the band’s approach to this album, and unlike their uncertain futures when American Football was released. Kinsella has said he is just happy to reunite with his friends and play music, let alone write new music, and having the band back together is a luxury that he doesn’t take for granted (“Maybe I'm asleep / this is all a dream / I can't believe that life is happening to me” Kinsella sings on the album’s lead single “I’ve Been So Lost for So Long”)
If we are to take this album for what it is, without considering anything the band has ever done prior, it is quite enjoyable. There are only a few instances where songs don’t ascend to the levels that other songs possess on this album (“Give Me the Gun”), or don’t fit into American Football’s signature sound (“Home is Where the Haunt Is” is much more suitable under Owen). But this album, as a whole, does not disappoint. Unreasonable expectations will disappoint if you’re looking for something equal or greater than to what they’ve done in the past, but that’s why this can’t be considered a “comeback” album per se, because that term can seem like a band is trying to outdo itself. Despite the self-deprecating nature Kinsella is known for in his lyrics, which is commonplace on this album, this is the most comfortable I’ve heard him in a long time.