The legendary status of emo pioneers American Football is one of the few uncontested facts of indie music. Their story is simple: three guys from Illinois get together to release a single record in 1999 only to break up within a year of its release. Since then, their self-titled debut has amassed a level of recognition and critical acclaim of which most bands could only dream. Critics and fans lauded the record for its stripped-down sound, confessional lyrics and blend of math rock, indie and emo genres. Now, 17 years later, American Football has returned to the house they built.
Unfortunately, sometimes you can’t go home again; or rather, you shouldn’t. The original parts are all there: vocalist Mike Kinsella, drummer Steve Lamos and guitarist Steve Holmes have all returned (with the addition of Kinsella’s cousin Nate on bass). They’re still writing with the same gentle guitar lines, odd time signatures and emotional lyrics. Hell, even the title is the same. But therein lies the problem: it’s all been done before and it’s been done a lot better. As Mike Kinsella sings on opening track “Where Are We Now?”: “Both alone in the same house…We’ve been here before”.
As mentioned earlier, the album is completely comprised of the same elements as the original. The guitars ring and twinkle in the air while the rhythm section mostly holds things down. I say mostly because the songs seem to lose track of themselves every once in a while, and blend together into a stream of guitar noodling. The first three songs are largely generic and make little effort to do anything worth remembering. Not to mention Mike Kinsella’s flat and emotionless vocal delivery that saps the song of feeling. Lamos occasionally shifts the rhythm into something interesting, only to be overcome by more dreamy, meandering guitars. It all comes off as a cheap imitation of the first record.
Things do eventually pick up with the track “Born To Lose”. Despite being a relatively calm, mid-tempo track, there’s a bit more passion behind this one. The guitars feel more focused and the beat holds everything together on a rock solid foundation. There’s distortion and emotion and it feels genuine. “Give Me The Gun” highlights the band’s math rock influences and is an interesting listen for drumming alone. “Desire Gets In The Way” is probably the most lively of the bunch. Out of all the cuts on LP2, this is the one that sounds the most like American Football is excited to be back. Mike Kinsella sings with dedication and conviction, mirroring his younger self but with a more mature bent. This handful of songs strike a balance between old and new; paying homage to their previous work while still doing something a little different.
And then there’s the moments of what could be considered pure parody. Take “I Need A Drink (Or Two or Three)” for example. This song sounds like the result of a band mocking 90s emo conventions. The lyrics are a sad attempt at sincerity and cannot be taken seriously: “I need a drink or two or three/To fall asleep without you/I’ve had the longest day/I’m as blue as the sky is green”. It’s patronizing in the worst way, and frankly not up to par with American Football’s songwriting ability.
At the end of the day, this album could have been a lot worse. Returning to a project after 17 years is tough, especially when your last album helped shape an entire genre of music. But this album could have been a lot better, too. Most of it sounds phoned in, an attempt to capitalize on the success of the original. Maybe American Football believed that they just needed the original pieces to recreate their success. But some things were just never meant to happen twice.
Indie Rock | Polyvinyl