American Football Return as Adults with LP2
Music fans are irrevocably guilty of expecting way too much of reunions, depending on the artist for which they are obsessive. Most of these are damned from the outset of announcement, according to a precarious formula, regardless of what may be “true” to the average listener: the band gets back together, details are revealed for a tour and a new album, an immediate wave of nostalgia and excitement for more of the same old same old follows, the single is released, fans notice the impossible-to-miss difference in sound that cannot help but appear naked to the listener after so many years have passed, and pernicious comments finally ensue. Everyone has done this, and some artists have had better luck finding acceptance in their return (Dinosaur Jr, My Bloody Valentine) than others (Pixies).
American Football fall into a once niche category of emo lifers. For the layman, Mike Kinsella, Steve Lamos, and Steve Holmes are not considered godfathers of the genre, yet despite their material making its appearance years after bands like Rites of Spring and Sunny Day Real Estate, American Football made their mark in highlighting the sensitive aspect of the style. The band’s first EP and album are classic due to their honest, no frills lyrics and math-y but minimalistic instrumentation. “Never Meant,” arguably the group’s most recognizable and immortal song, doesn’t begin until after 12 seconds of the members dusting off their instruments, asking each other if they’re ready to do another take and if they were going to keep the previous one or not. The record wears its freshness and honesty on its sleeve and that is why it has had such an impact on listeners since 1999. It is a defining document of a few very talented college students emulating bummed out musical influences paired with their own anxieties, striking a chord with nearly every bummed out and anxiety-ridden kid that gives it a spin.
As if time were folded between then and now by a tesseract, everyone sounds as skilled and in the zone as they did back in their heyday. Steve Lamos shuns any notion of growing rusty on the skins after so much time by providing the complicated percussion to “Give Me the Gun,” his most impressive in the band’s history. He even busts out the melancholic trumpet for old times’ sake to repeat old wonderful habits by once more bringing the album’s final track to a sulky close. Holmes and Kinsella fall right back into twin guitar bliss, spitting out rich counter melodies. The two are veterans of utilizing alternately tuned strings, acting as a eugenics team for timeless dual legato riffs.
The addition of cousin Nate Kinsella on bass rounds out the band’s low end permanently, giving LP2 a fuller feel than the first. While the previous full length also featured bass, it was used more rhythmically, as a precautionary measure when songs were not able to stand on their own with their standard two guitar setup. So gone are the rollicking root-note oriented bass lines of numbers like “I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional,” swapped for both more traditional and melodic support. The outro to “I’ve Been So Lost for So Long” for instance decrescendos beautifully with Nate’s assistance, maintaining a nice comingling of treble and bass to tuck the beleaguered tune in to bed.
Mike’s stage in life may be matured, but his phrasing hasn’t, and while this is a genre that could suffer from older souls singing words inspired by a younger spirit (e.g. Braid’s “Do Over” lyric “Now’s the part where I break your heart”), Kinsella melds his songwriting tendencies with what’s on his mind as a father, husband, and now – reluctant emo poet laureate. A lot has changed. Instead of lamenting, “How I should say goodbye,” he’s juggling married life in “Desire Gets in the Way” with the line, “For you, I’ll remain/Chained to the bed we made/But I get to choose/Your lingerie.” All of those lamentations that made LP1 so memorable were parts to a whole that in a way were implicit steps to achieving adulthood. The struggle can be seen at any mile marker in life, but the relationships that encompass you shift slowly over the course of time.
I saw Mike Kinsella perform under his Owen moniker at Rough Trade last month, and the guy made it clear that he is well aware of his surroundings. The crowd never heckled per se, but prodded him in between songs as he retuned his guitar. At the mere mention of American Football, Mike nonchalantly said, “American Football, yeah. New album? Vocals are too loud, I know,” all with a grin on his face, of course. This was in reference to one of the most prominent complaints from the online criticism behind the new singles. Kinsella knew very well that announcing a new album would receive negative comments from “diehard” fans but it’s all just music to him. By the early 2000s the first LP had been cemented as a cult hit, and fans had been moaning about a new album since. Now it’s here and it’s an incredibly solid and enjoyable record, keeping this in mind: it is not as good as the first album – nothing ever can be, because LP1 was a moody concoction of twinkly guitar melodies and untouchable innovation all moving together with centripetal force to create something that was unique and pioneering. Something cannot be rediscovered for the first time, and asking LP2 to repeat the same trick is only possible if you were to erase your own memory. Almost two decades have passed since their debut, but LP2 should still be thought of as a sophomore album, and a fond one at that.