American Football releases a new American Football for the third time and the first time in seventeen years
Album cover courtesy of American Football
Review by Max Luebbers
To many, the arrival of a new American Football album seemed like an impossible dream -- until now. The Chicago group crafted a meandering emo opus that would become a cult hit years after its initial 1999 release, and its haunting, strung-out grooves have been the soundtrack to so many adolescent memories since: late-night drives, hazy house parties, and heartbreaking loss. While the production and lyrics were amateur, their improvised and off the cuff nature created an instantly relatable and sincere record.
Hopes of a new release were heightened in 2014 when the original trio - made up of guitarists Mike Kinsella and Steve Holmes and drummer Steve Lamos - announced a set of reunion shows, their first since the original LP’s release in 1999. But with the excitement came significant trepidation. The opening lick of “Never Meant” and the famous cover photo of what is now simply referred to as the ‘American Football House’ have become iconic in indie rock and emo circles, and it was unclear whether a second release would eradicate the mystique of the original or build upon their legendary work from two decades ago.
American Football was conceived quickly as a slapped together “art project” at the University of Illinois by Kinsella, Holmes, and Lamos. Their sound was equally informed by post-hardcore acts, like Slint and Kinsella’s own Cap’n Jazz, and minimalistic folk artists like Elliott Smith. While they had played in bands in high school, Kinsella was originally a drummer, and the group owned very little equipment to record on. Their makeshift recordings of half-improvised songs, primarily recorded in a few days as the group was preparing to leave college, have a sense of spontaneity and serendipity that makes the album grounded in a specific time with a specific purpose.
Originally totally unaware of their monumental influence on an entire genre, the group still seems surprised by the meteoric success of American Football (LP1) since their hiatus. Next to their 90’s emo contemporaries like Brain and The Promise Ring, American Football has risen to the top over the course of nearly two decades of radio silence. When the members realized how unexpectedly beloved they had become, they quickly re-released LP1. Their label’s site was crashed from the traffic. After some consideration, the band announced two reunion shows in 2014, adding experienced Bassist and cousin, Nate Kinsella, and fittingly starting in Champaign, Illinois, site of the famed ‘American Football House.’
Kinsella would be the only original member to carry on his musical career with any notoriety, forming the acoustic solo act Owen. He would go on to produce a prolific series of heartbreaking folk albums, a far cry from the thrasher and progressive sounds of Cap’n Jazz and American Football respectively. For those not familiar with Owen, the new American Football LP might introduce surprising and potentially unwelcome changes to their signature sound. For one, Kinsella’s voice is more resonant and takes a prominent place in the mix, opposed to the relatively back-mic’d vocals of the original. And while its does sound like a small change, the richer production on the new record changes its tone completely putting a stronger focus on Kinsella’s lyrics.
LP2 is certainly a more mature record due to its lyrical content and modernized production. While the angst of the original LP remains, it’s grown-up, and the themes are noticeably more adult. While LP1’s lyrics were by no means well written, it fit in nicely with the rest of the instrumentation. On the new album, however, Kinsella’s cliches are a little too apparent. “Give Me the Gun” and “I Need a Drink (or Two or Three)” seem a little too heavy-handed in their imagery, a sharp contrast from the original’s apparent ambiguity, and Owen’s own deep vulnerability and sincerity.
Despite the changes in lyrical content and production, the arrangements themselves are unmistakably American Football. Guitars chime in complex grooves that take several minutes to play out fully and often clash with the unconventional and syncopated rhythms of Lamos’s drumming. The album as a whole has nice sense of space. Rarely does it ever feel rushed, instead it just stretches, allowing the riffs to morph and shift naturally. Some new sounds do make a welcome appearance later on in the album too: Bell-like vocal harmonies mix well with their signature ringing harmonics on songs like on “Born to Lose,” and some unfamiliar guitar tones are utilized including lush vibrato bends which feel distinctly “Surfy.”
It would be easy to dismiss LP2 as a cash grab, but Kinsella and company seem to genuinely be having fun with a college project they thought had died a long time ago. It truly feels like four midlife crises getting the band back together to see if they’ve still got it, and they certainly do. Each track is as wispy and rhythmic as the originals, and Kinsella still speaks in eloquent deepities that while ultimately meaningless are equally sincere. Now with a new coat of paint, the group that was seemingly never meant to be has made it to the forefront of emo for the first time in its two decade long lifespan.