A significant aspect of the recent emo revival was the sudden exponential increase of fandom for long-dissolved math rock act American Football – exacerbated no end by Polyvinyl Records’ 2014 deluxe edition release of the band’s 1999 self-titled debut album, accompanied of course by a reunion tour. Now, seventeen years on from their last release and subsequent breakup, American Football have thrown their hats back into the ring with a new album, imaginatively also titled ‘American Football’.
And despite the title, it’s a solid listen from the off. Opener ‘Where Are We Now?’ fades in with a characteristically ethereal dual-guitar line before vocalist/guitarist Mike Kinsella’s pleasingly gentle voice floats in over the top. ‘Home is Where the Haunt is’, ‘My Instincts Are the Enemy’ and ‘Desire Gets in the Way’ likewise stand out as exceptional examples of an emo band who still know how to make you feel “as blue as the sky is grey”.
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Of course, comparisons to the gods of twinkly sadness’ only other full length release are unavoidable. It’s clear in a great number of ways that the band have (as one would hope) matured a fair bit in seventeen years. From the superior production quality to the marked improvement in Kinsella’s vocals, a significant and immediate takeaway from this album is that we are dealing with an older and wiser band than the one many of us fell in love with over a decade after they broke up. An obvious question then: is this a good thing?
This second album feels more vocally focussed than the first. Where 1999 American Football seemed to treat singing as yet another instrument, 2016 sees Kinsella’s vocals squarely up front, high on the mix. The effect is something of a dilution of the band’s previously cacophonic, jammy feel. It’s just a much tighter record; the advantage of a decade and a half’s practice shines clear in its composition, each song knowing when to linger dreamily on a single hook and when to push forward.
The downside of this of course is the inevitable loss of rawness and palpable melancholy. The emotional vulnerability is still there, but it’s an older, more confident representation. Lyrically it’s still just as earnest and yearning, but sometimes varies drastically between simple and honest (“Some things never change, maybe that’s ok”) and just a little nauseous (“Doctor it hurts when I exist”).
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Luckily the instrumentation picks up the slack. Despite a drop in the amount of sad trumpet used, Kinsella and second guitarist Steve Holmes still know how to weave a beautiful twin guitar line, and many of the riffs manage to hit that emotional sweet spot in just the right way (see the opening of ‘Home is Where the Haunt is’). While occasionally repetitive, at points it’s wonderfully pretty.
As a standalone album ‘American Football’ (the second one) is a strong effort from a band who hadn’t written together for over a decade. Whether the sad youngsters of seventeen years from now will idolise it in the same way as its predecessor seems unlikely, but who knows what the future of emo will bring?
‘American Football (LP2)’ is now available via Polyvinyl Records