The tables have now turned twice in 20 years on American Football‘s first album. In 1999, American Football made a few ripples on the emo margins, but had the unfortunate fate to be delivered by guitarist/vocalist Mike Kinsella, guitarist Steve Holmes, and drummer Steve Lamos at the point when they had decided the band had run its course. Then it sat still for 15 years gathering adolescent fans like moss, until the old pals could no longer ignore market demand, and hit the road in honor of their now widely beloved college-years pastime. How nice it was to hear those songs brought to life again. Everyone’s a winner.
Everyone, that is, except American Football, which now has to be specified with a parenthetical “(LP1).” That’s because American Football, the band, decided to do more than re-learn the old tunes; they started writing new ones. Those new songs, when they were released in late 2016 as American Football (LP2), turned out to be really good. Often even better than the old ones. Now, against even Mike Kinsella’s own prediction from a couple years back, there is another new LP, and that storied, slow-and-steady-wins-the-race debut has been relegated to third place in the American Football catalog.
Is it a sign of ungratefulness to that formative release that the band have refused to even let it be the best album with its own name? Have American Football in this decade been building on their youthful past, or burying it? One thing is for sure: symbolically, at least, they’ve now left home. Album covers are read into too often, but that nondescript house in Urbana, Illinois, featured on the cover of LP1 somehow became the band’s emblem, not to mention an unlikely superfan Instagram destination. American Football honored, or humored, this association with the cover of LP2, but they’re done with that on LP3.
Perhaps not surprisingly, their music has taken an analogous path. Between LP1 and LP2, there were enough similarities in the instrumentation, enough twinkling in the guitars and halt to the rhythms, to bridge the 17-year gap. Kinsella has even referred to LP2 as a “bookend”. LP3 immediately nods to the twinklecore faithful as well in the first minute of opener “Silhouettes”, but it does so with a rush of vibes and bells. Steady in groove and seven-plus minutes long, “Silhouettes” clears the path for LP3 to establish itself apart from not just its distant predecessor, but also its recent one. American Football have surpassed “reunion band” status and are fully in the present. You don’t have to care about their history, or even about emo at all, to appreciate this record.
More notable than any musical differences between LP1 and LP2 was the improvement of Mike Kinsella’s lyrics and singing voice. The difference was all but inevitable, given all the intervening years of songwriting under his Owen identity. American Football themselves have noted that the lyrics on the first album were something of an afterthought, and though the unguarded simplicity of “The Summer Ends” and “But the Regrets are Killing Me” have connected with all those Internet kids, it would have been dishonest for Kinsella to try to regress back to that mode as part of reviving the band. On LP3, his enunciation and observational skills are clear.
No character in the American Football songbook has been more vividly drawn than the tragic protagonist of “Uncomfortably Numb”. After veering uncomfortably close to “The Living Years” territory within the first few lines, Kinsella knowingly straightens the wheel with a bit of bent wisdom: “I blamed my father in my youth / Now as a father, I blame the booze.” “Uncomfortably Numb” is one of three well-chosen male/female duets on the album, and Paramore’s Hayley Williams, in the role of exhausted romantic partner, holds back enough in her delivery not to outshine Kinsella. Their staggered deliveries in the chorus capture the characters’ misaligned stars, and the effect is disarmingly soulful, before Kinsella’s final insistence that he’ll “make new friends in the ambulance” leaves on a stubborn punchline.
The other two guest appearances also illustrate different states of interpersonal relationships: the seesaw longing of “Every Wave to Ever Rise” with Land of Talk’s Elizabeth Powell, and the haunted call-and-response of miscommunication with Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell in “I Can’t Feel You”. The fact that there is now a direct connection between American Football and Slowdive has got to be one of the more implausible realities of this ’90s-in-the-’10s reunion era, but it works very well. All three of these duets would not have panned out as well on songs from LP2, let alone the first record.
There are adult-specific growing pains in songs such as “Life Support” (“When will it end / Relentless adolescence?”), but across the entire album runs a strong need to live a meaningful life, a need that doesn’t require crows feet to understand. “What’s the allure of / Inconsequential love?” Kinsella asks in “Silhouettes”; “How will I exist / Without consequence?” he wonders in “Uncomfortably Numb”. American Football in their original days were short-lived and wrote songs steeped in youngster’s nostalgia. Now that they actually have years behind them to miss, they have stayed together longer, recorded nearly twice as much material, and are not a nostalgia trip but a band worth growing with. The sweet melancholy is still there, it’s just more articulate.