American Football released their self-titled debut LP in September of 1999, months after the conclusion of President Bill Clinton’s bitter impeachment trial. While the culture reeled from what Philip Roth called “the summer in America when nausea returned, when the joking didn’t stop”, this nice-guy Midwestern emo trio gave a genre built on sincerity and dewy-eyed longing its most enduring and definitive document. The group disbanded after its one-off debut, as its members graduated from the University of Illinois and moved on to different projects and careers, leaving behind nine melancholic songs about teenage feelings and summers ending that would mark the amplitude of emo’s second wave.
Fast forward 17 years: the country is likely on the brink of another Clinton administration, and American Football returns for a second dose of polite, treble-driven wistfulness. This new record — also containing nine songs, also called American Football — was welcome news for many during this particular moment of cultural déjà vu. It comes at a time when music writers are cranking out think pieces on the self-fulfilling “emo revival” led by younger bands for whom American Football’s masterful debut is a holy text.
“Obviously we knew the time was ripe for three middle-aged dudes to play some old songs about teenage feelings,” guitarist Steve Holmes joked upon the announcement of the band’s first reunion shows in 2014. But now American Football has raised the stakes, releasing new songs about presumably new feelings, and risking a legacy that has taken firm shape over the last two decades. The returns are decidedly mixed. Some listeners may get a satisfying-enough taste of what they loved about the first LP, while others will likely be disappointed and maybe even a little puzzled by a familiar favorite made uncanny.
The biggest difference between the American Football of 1999 and the American Football of 2016 is that the latter sounds very much like a band with a frontman. This wasn’t the case on the first album, for a pretty obvious reason: singer and guitarist Mike Kinsella wasn’t yet a front man. He has spent most of the 21st century as the focal point of the project Owen, delivering frank, confessional songs with remarkable emotional specificity. It seems like these years at center stage have left Kinsella reluctant to step out of the frame on the new American Football. His voice is far and away the most prominent feature of the album, frequently cutting against the texture of the mix and dulling the impact of some interesting musical ideas.
Songs like “My Instincts are the Enemy” and “I’ve Been So Lost for So Long” contain much of the raw data that made the band’s debut a treasure for so many. Guitars twinkle and glide across off-kilter time signatures, expertly toeing the line between cerebral experimentation and a warm, uncomplicated hug. Listeners drawn to the first American Football LP for its expert musicianship alone are sure to find something to love in songs like these. Traces of that old magic can be found here and elsewhere, even if they’re too often muscled to the margins by the album’s singer-focused frame. The band even occasionally shifts into a new gear or two, like on the uncharacteristically buoyant “Desire Gets in the Way”, showing scrappy signs of life in an album that can at times feel plodding and static.
It’s no surprise that the instrumentation is the brightest feature of American Football’s second LP. The band has always been more post-rock than pop-punk, sharing more chromosomes with ethereal outfits like the Six Parts Seven than the brattier and less-refined variety that might spring to mind upon hearing the word “emo”. But here Kinsella’s vocal presence is so massive, his lyrics so preoccupied with the sophomoric anguish of their speakers — “I’m as blue as the sky is gray,” he offers in one particularly painful turn of phrase — that there is little room for the frequently excellent musical arrangements to stretch out and become something truly special. The album could be improved with more extended instrumental moments, like the back end of LP1’s “Honestly?” which unfolds just long enough to become the most moving and memorable minutes of that excellent first album. This is possibly the one feature of their debut that the band seems uninterested in revisiting here.
It seems unfair to do an apples-to-apples comparison between these two albums, especially when the circumstances of their recordings are so wildly different, but these are the terms established by the new LP. We are invited at every turn to consider this new record as an analog to the band’s lone masterpiece — a losing proposition, regardless of the strength of the follow-up. But even if this new uncanny version of the band is too much to bear for listeners who have been clutching the original American Football to their chest for the last 17 years, few would take issue with their simple and sweet motivation for releasing this imperfect follow-up in the first place. “It’s our way of keeping the band going,” Kinsella said in a recent interview. “Otherwise, it would have to stop again.”
The first American Football LP was released at a time when we needed a healthy dose of real feeling to cut through the cynicism of the political moment. Maybe we’re back there again. We’re still talking about Bill Clinton’s scandals — rocketed against our will back to that nauseous joke of a summer in 1999 — even if they are dwarfed by the totalitarian shadow of a boorish carnival barker with bad hair. This new American Football record might not be up to the task of hugging us through these dark times, but it’s a good reminder that we used to really feel something. And, who knows: throw on your sweater and horn-rimmed glasses, pop that original masterpiece in your disc changer, and you just might feel it again.