by Henry Zimmerman
Rating: 8.5 / 10
Editor’s note: For the sake of clarity, the album American Football (1999) will be referred to as LP 1 and American Football (2016) will be referred to as LP 2.
In what may be the most anticipated release from the emo-music scene this century, American Football picks up where they left off seventeen years ago, and manage to display musical maturity against the weight of the expectations looming over their heads.
Almost two decades of silence from American Football has allowed their first full-length effort, LP 1, to age like a fine, emotional wine. Their cardinal album has since spread beyond the relatively small emo community into which it was released and at this point, it is regarded by many to be one of the best albums of that genre, of that era, or even of all time. Rolling Stone, for example, gave it a top-ten spot on their list of the 40 greatest emo albums, alongside legendary emo albums such as The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good and Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary. Today, LP 1 holds significant historical value for both the band and emo as a whole. That’s what makes processing their newest work, LP 2, so difficult.
As a result of both the prolificacy of American Football’s first album, and the fact that there was a seventeen-year lull between releases, many fans have fallen into the trap of worshiping the way the first album sounds. This results in a number of fans who don’t like the sound of LP 2, not based on any sort of critical analysis, but rather on a preferential treatment of LP 1. In some cases, long-time fans of American Football outright refuse to listen to the band’s newest work based on principle. This approach to digesting trends in American Football’s new sound is further perpetuated by contemporary emo bands like Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) and The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, who continue to release music that is inspired by American Football’s unique and atmospheric take on emo; a sound that was developed through LP 1. Bands like this have created a sort of timestamp of the sounds of that era in emo music, allowing people to remain isolated from new trends in emo should they wish to do so.
For diehard fans of LP 1 (and bands with a similar sound), LP 2 may sound a bit foreign. While the instrumentation on LP 2 stays true to American Football’s signature sound, Mike Kinsella’s voice does stray from the known path. Kinsella’s voice is fuller and more mature now at age 39 than it was at 22. Over the years, his voice has developed into that of a legitimate singer, eliminating almost all traces of the brash and unrefined voice he presented in the late nineties. But the real difference is in the way Kinsella uses his voice from song to song. On this new album, he plays with alternative vocal progressions, breaking away from the expected vocal layouts found in the music of the emo genre created by less-studious musicians. Kinsella perhaps has been inspired and influenced by the similar style of fellow Their / They’re / There bandmate Evan Thomas Weiss. In some parts of the album it seems as though Kinsella’s singing dances around with the guitar parts like there’s no one else watching. Other parts of the album feature a sort of cry-for-help style of wailing, which isn’t unlike Kinsella in previous works, except that this time, it seems more controlled; more filled with despair. Overall, his vocal work on LP 2 more closely resembles the work he did through his solo project, Owen; something he’s been working on since the evaporation of American Football in 2000. Listeners that are initially put off by the changes in Kinsella’s voice and singing structure that occurred between LP 1 and LP 2 will be better prepared to accept the changes if they spend some time listening to the work he did as an individual apart from American Football.
The lyrics found on LP 2 are undoubtedly morose, but this is not to the detriment of the album; it comes with the territory of emo music. Many lines contain a subtle nuance that has the ability to capture the focus of the listener with their power to evoke true emotion. The libretto is not merely sad for the sake of being sad – a common problem in the emo genre – nor are they predictable or clichéd. The lyrics on this album avoid those very pitfalls, showing maturity and experience both in life and in songwriting. This experienced approach, along with the personal nature of Kinsella’s lyricism, translates into some lines on the LP that are a bit too abstract in context, which makes it difficult to extrapolate any sort of intended meaning from them, but again, this is not to the detriment of the album. The lyrics aren’t exactly poetic in nature, like those of The Smiths or Joy Division, but they also don’t simply existing to fulfill a rhyme scheme. The words present to the listener scenarios that are melancholic in nature, allowing the listener to approach the very feelings of Kinsella himself.
LP 2 expands on themes such as self-doubt, failure in relationships, despondency, and the misery that comes with love; issues that are prevalent in everyone’s lifetime, at least in one form or another. While Kinsella tells the stories, either real or imagined, listeners can place themselves easily into the situations, sometimes drawing parallels to the stories in their own life. If an individual was in their early adulthood at the time of the release of LP 1, (and are now a similar age to the members of the band), they may extrapolate different meaning than someone else who is in their teenage years and experiencing American Football for the first time through LP 2. Therein lies the beauty of this work; American Football has crafted another album that allows listeners to go down their own a path of personal insight, rather than pulling them by the hand through that experience.
In regard to the instrumentation, the album is crisp and technically proficient. The members of the band have very clearly become more skilled as musicians after all these years. There are subtle differences in the composition from their last album, but these differences don’t detract from the fact that the album still sounds exactly like American Football. And after seventeen years of individual growth among the members of the band, it’s only natural to get a musical experience that is slightly different. When it comes to the new album, LP 2 nonetheless provides most of what one could come to expect from American Football. Furthermore, as a result of the technological advances that occurred in the 17-year gap between releases, the new album has a cleaner, more digital sound. While this doesn’t affect the sound of the album for the average listener, people that listen to vinyl records may be able to pick up on this difference from the first album.
Intertwining guitar parts at the hands of Mike Kinsella and Steve Holmes are prominent features on each track, though from song to song, the melodies don’t sound unique enough from one another. With this lack of exceptional melodies, each of the songs blend together, lacking any noteworthiness that may distinguish one from another. No musical passage from the new album stands out from the rest in the same way the opening from LP 1’s “Never Meant” does. What this allows for is semblance between tracks, emphasizing more continuity across themes, almost like a concept album. The production of this album actually compliments this idea and is better digested as one track that is 38 minutes long, as opposed to nine individual tracks.
Another component that contributes to the songs on this album blending together is the significant decrease in the amount of Steve Lamos’ trumpet playing. Lamos played his trumpet over lulls on the first record, but it is not until the tail-end of LP 2 that the brass mumblings of Lamos’ horn are heard. On LP 2, the trumpet seems more like a last-minute thought rather than a dedicated inclusion. The two tracks on the new album in which trumpet can be heard are still good examples of how to include brass in emo music. While American Football wasn’t the first emo band to incorporate trumpet work into their sound, they have since been one of the notable examples of how to it well.
Taking all of these things into consideration, LP 2 is a successful venture for American Football in their elder years. The new sound is different relative to their first work, yet the new album retains all of the familiar facets unique to American Football. Though the album drags at certain points, all of the songs are enjoyable in their own way. The musicianship is strong, the emotional lyrics are haunting, and the record is worth delving into. However, it does not seem likely that LP 2 will be as equally-memorable and influential as its predecessor is after 17 years.
When it comes to the enjoyment of this new album, don’t become tied to the first album in an act of aural protest. In order to fully enjoy the album, one has to eschew any preconceived notions about a now-middle-aged band releasing emo revival music in their twilight years. Don’t be afraid to lose sight of American Football’s first record when listening to LP 2. In the words of Mike Kinsella, “You can’t miss what you forget”.
RIYL: Owen, Clever Girl
Favorite Tracks: 6, 8, 9