What exactly made the first American Football album a classic? And how did it eventually gain a reputation as the definitive statement from the 90’s generation of emotional rock? Some may argue good timing, and though that’s probably got something to do with it, it doesn’t seem to account for why its mass appeal came years later.
It’s no secret that emo’s been given a bad rep. The awful make-up and suicidal crybaby stereotypes are one thing, but the music has greatly shifted away from its roots as well, where today, emo has now come to define any whiny pop-punk band under the sun (or depressing, ominous raincloud). It’s gotten so bad that worthwhile emo acts these days seem to be operating under a more wide sweeping indie-rock guise, so as to avoid any affiliation with the genre (see Pinegrove, The Hotelier, and Julien Baker).
American Football’s popularity against this current climate isn’t surprising. It’s the perfect backlash record, a place where emo kids who want nothing to do with the current scene can hide away. After all, aren’t we all seeking that sacred feeling of discovering music that sounds like it was recorded just for us? American Football is surely that record for a lot of people, whom all likely experienced a collective chagrin in witnessing the demand for its repress last year. Guess what? Turns out you’re not the only one who loves that record.
The band’s debut – airy, mellow, almost amateurish at times, and full of sprawling instrumentals – was, in itself, a kind of transitional record. If the earliest of emo acts were responsible for taking much of the aggression out of hardcore, then American Football were responsible for taking it out entirely. Without their auspicious debut, it’s hard to imagine the existence of Death Cab’s Transatlanticism, or Bright Eyes’s I’m Wide Awake it’s Morning, even if the albums have little to do with one another.
LP2 (Polyvinyl, 2016)
17 years later and we’re graced with the band’s follow-up. Doesn’t matter what band you are, stack that many years between albums and the sound is bound to change. Thankfully, the American Football of 2016 sound a lot like the American Football of 1999. The biggest, and most immediately obvious difference is Kinsella’s vocals, which, throughout the album, are far more present and much louder in the mix, as if he took a full step closer to the mic this time around.
There’s also an emphasis on the lyrical content with this new material that was somewhat lacking in the debut – though not to the album’s fault. Every sentimental anecdote and nostalgia-soaked turn of phrase is sung with the utmost clarity. I’m hard pressed to think of an album with not one obscured word (maybe something from Bill Callahan or Real Estate). In any case, it’s a rarity, and for an album that sounds as if the lyrics are taken straight from journal entries, that type of transparency becomes a vulnerable position to take. It’s the type of vulnerability that Kinsella must be used to by now, what, with his work in Owls, Joan of Arc, and his solo output under the Owen moniker – whose number of full lengths are rapidly approaching the double digit mark.
Nearing 40, Kinsella likely can’t spare a single fuck to what people think of his emo boy inclinations, especially this late in his career. And although the band have taken a rather nonchalant stance on their follow-up, it’s clear that some serious work went into it. But with serious work often comes serious trimming, which, in a few cases does detract from the album. Take, for example, “Born to Lose,” whose fadeout at the 5 minute mark ruins its chance to be the answer to “Honestly?” The same can be said of “Give me the Gun,” where the lead guitar at the 1:30 mark would be nothing short of brilliant if it were just given a bit more room to breathe. Its inclusion feels perfectly natural, but its brevity stifles the progression.
Ultimately, nitpicking the differences between two albums released 17 years apart is moot. Throughout such a long hiatus it’s clear that was has survived the years is the band’s spirit. If anything, LP2 guides us deeper into that spirit, shedding more layers on love, loss, addiction and the banality of life – to name just a few of the running themes. One needn’t look further than the album covers; in 1999 we got to see the house. In 2016 we were let inside.