Review: American Football, American Football

After a landmark debut album, the midwestern emo band's first in 17 years
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After a landmark debut album, the midwestern emo band's first in 17 years
american football 2016.jpg

This isn’t as bad as it first sounds, but it’s pretty bad. People obviously like to pick on reunion albums without giving them a fair shot, because we’re fickle vultures who’ve distanced ourselves so far from any interest in auteur theory that we tend not to care much about how an artist’s worldview changes (or doesn’t) over a long period of time. Anyone who lets their dislike of an artist’s new material spoil their enjoyment of the old deserves to have that enjoyment spoiled. That all said, this is a bad album. My hopes were quite modest, but evidently not modest enough. It sounds like 2004 at the mall. Damn.

American Football are guitarist Steve Holmes, drummer/trumpeter/keyboardist Steve Lamos, and singer/guitarist Mike Kinsella, and 17 years ago they recorded one eponymous album in the chilly college town of Urbana, Illinois during the last few days before they all went their separate ways home from school. The record came out in September of ’99 on Polyvinyl, a label whose dodgy roster might explain why the album didn’t get much initial serious attention. But the album gathered enough retroactive attention that it was lovingly reissued in 2014, and nobody who’s heard “Never Meant” or “Honestly?” even once needs me to tell them why the music is special. It also helped, though, that we can now easily trace Kinsella’s long history in emo, from Cap’n Jazz to Joan of Arc to his continued work as Owen. There was a new Owen album released just three months ago, but that obviously doesn’t bring the cachet (and baggage) that a new American Football album does. The fact that this new record just sounds like Owen with twinkly electric guitars replacing the acoustics shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to Kinsella even tangentially. People, the newest Owen album is the ninth since American Football broke up. The guy hasn’t gone anywhere. Sure, he’s not the whole band. But let’s approach this realistically, y’know?

It’s not breaking news that reunion music isn’t a revelation, but this album seems worse than the merely dull crop of new Owen material. In hindsight, it should’ve been obvious. Given the debut’s “cult” history, the economic necessity to simply re-create its sound — clean slippery Telecaster strands plinking and pinging around each other in repeated phasing patterns; plaintive self-deprecating aphoristic phrases sung in a slightly congested sad boy’s voice; rhythms with a jazzy swing that likes changing the meter — makes the whole endeavor sound like a fucking adult contemporary version of an album whose appeal came in large part from how casual it sounded. This new one is more precise, but in a crisp, antiseptic sort of way, and yet it’s also boringly simplistic from a songwriting perspective. These are guys who probably know how to use thumb picks but choose not to and let the amp do most of the work instead. Within 40 seconds I knew the record was gonna be a turkey, starting with the kind of generic twinkly arpeggios that come freeze-dried in packets before a dreadful “wheeeeere” moans in with the breeze like a screechy fart. Even leaving aside the issue of how grotesquely emo singing voices tend to age (or rather, don’t), stuff this cutesy can sound pretty ridiculous if it’s not casual.

The rest of the album continues with that “adult contemporary emo” sound: standard twinkle, the same unvaried non-tune in almost every song (no newbie would suspect Kinsella has the offhand gift for melody that he does), and a tippy-tappy drum mix that feels like it doesn’t want to disturb the vibe of this mopey mall. Yeesh, there’s so little to even expound upon, sonically. “My Instincts Are the Enemy” comes in sounding like a very rough early take of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Luna”, then decides that’s too interesting and starts repeating this lazy high chord pattern into infinity, and the harmonics could be from an Alan Silvestri score. “Home Is Where the Haunt Is” has a cute guitar line, and the spacey cadences in the treble parts are sad and purty (plus there’s some fine shivering reverb in the intro), but Kinsella’s vocal quivering is obnoxious (“those wounds won’t lick the-hem-selves”) and the arrangement is yawnsville. “Born to Lose” is the only time you’ll really notice a bass, but it just pounds out doubled low thunks over more default-setting arpeggios and tints of (admittedly pretty) xylophone. The overly-delicate start of “Give Me the Gun” and the ostensible “chug” of the banal first single “I’ve Been So Lost for So Long” both sound like commercials for a Nissan with a four-wheel drive. “I Need a Drink (or Two or Three)” has a striking mix, with faded trumpets that sound like distant city traffic, and it tries to tangle its guitar lines a bit more inventively than usual (it almost gets to a waltz), but the drums keep re-settling themselves all jittery-like, and somehow that stilted-ness makes the title punchline all the more annoying. It’s like they somehow kept all the irritating parts of power-pop without even making power-pop.

There are a few times when it feels like a song’s gonna shift somewhere unexpected - drummer Lamos in “Instincts” sounds like he really wants to bring the song into heavier, “Honestly?”-level territory - but then it just…uh, doesn’t. Nothing on the new record approaches the steady storm of resigned despair in the middle section of “Honestly?” or even the lullingly beautiful comedowns of “For Sure” or “Stay Home”, and in fact the music remains so blandly wistful that when some feedback does arrive, it sounds so weak and goes so nowhere that it’s like, why’d they even bother?

Kinsella’s voice is also miked all high and clear, which is a problem both because of the aforementioned aging emo singing voice and also for the fact that these lyrics can be pretty rough. The CD liner notes of the debut took lines from each song and threw them into a loose collage, and it made sense because most lines from any given song there remain quite moving: “You can’t miss what you forget”; “We’ve both been so unhappy, so let’s just see what happens when the summer ends”; “That’s life — so social.” But even if you don’t hold the new words up to the old standard, they’re pretty on-the-nose. “Dead eyes, why such vulgarity?” “If killing time was a crime, we’d be on ‘Most Wanted’ signs”? “My instincts are the enemy”? Clang, clang, clang. There are a few touching ones, sure: “I’m not here to question your motives, but I’m scared for us both”; “The nights are a miracle.” But they’re few and far between, and ultimately the only new song here I’d really miss, as a fan of the first album and so much of Kinsella’s work elsewhere, is “Desire Gets in the Way”, which is oddly enough the only song that could almost be described as “cheery,” skipping over the dusky hill with a good-hearted sigh. It’s a lament for everything being so easy at the tip of your fingers, and it’s wistful as usual, but the hook is so steady (it’s a good tune), and so catchy, that the song almost ends the album on a heartening note.

Revisiting the first record to hear if I’d been disgustingly wrong about it, the stuff held up. Even for a dabbler like myself, there’ve been emo records more cathartic, more musically complex, more tuneful, more eclectic, more righteously pained or painful…but it’s hard to think of one as straight-up pretty, or one that’s so committed to unashamedly gorgeous atmosphere. It’s the golden mean of Sunny Day Real Estate’s “Iscarabaid”, the Promise Ring’s “Is This Thing On?”, and Joan of Arc’s “Gin & Platonic”; the somewhat jazzy, somewhat math-y midwestern emo sound kissing another wasted summer goodbye at the end of the century. Something not many people point out is how similar American Football’s debut is to Pittsburgh math-rock band Don Caballero’s What Burns Never Returns: it’s like a mellower and steadier version of that guitar tone, and even the covers look similar: suburban houses made to seem isolated and alienating. But compare the two covers and it makes even more sense. The Don Cab cover looks like its bland suburban house is about to be abducted or absorbed by some extraterrestrial force. The American Football cover is just the window of that bland suburban house, the place for someone who can’t even will themselves to imagine something as dynamic and impossible as an escape. It’s just the house, and the bedroom light lingers there, and the music reflects that: they’re sad and they can’t think of much beyond their own sadness, which makes them even more sad, because those feelings bring with them the shame in knowing that your problems would be a luxury for most. The sense you get from the 1999 album is that they don’t necessarily expect anything to get better — just that they’ll stay the same. Which is a way of getting worse. Now check out the cover of this new album. Ooh, now we’re inside the house! And the photo looks like something so digitally brushed-up, so artificial, so devoid of any real sting or squeeze, that it’s like they don’t even realize why the first album became so beloved in the first place.

I feel mean picking on this album, because this band putting out new material to capitalize on the fond remembrance of a great album 17 years ago is totally understandable, and not worthy of any lasting condemnation. Me, I have to write about it, though, and it sounds bad. They’re doing this to make money, sure. They should make money, plenty more than they’ve probably got, because that first album is better than what most artists will record in their entire careers. So buy that one. Given the depressing artistic (and political) climate we’re in now, any distance should be welcome. But in the new album’s closing track, “Everyone Is Dressed Up”, Kinsella mournfully sings, “This will be forgotten by history and scholars alike/Another moment of import lost to time,” and when I first heard that line I just looked around the beigeness of my neighborhood, hearing this beige music, and thought about the general absence of passion everywhere, and I couldn’t help thinking, bitterly: “Oh no, and miss all this?” C