When young hearts break, the culprit is rarely difficult to track down. A high school romance torn apart by distance, a letter sent and unreturned, a large hadron collision set in motion by raging hormones. This kind of heartbreak is what compels a certain subset of young people to write emo songs, some of them good, most of them quite bad. When American Football released their self-titled debut album in 1999, they joined the small group of emo bands without a bad song to their name. Sure, they only had nine in total — 12 if you count their 1998 EP — but each of those songs managed to turn the raw energy of youth into something profound: a puzzle of guitar chords and off-kilter drum beats that sounded passingly adult.
The first was called “Never Meant” and opened with an off-the-cuff question (“Are we ready?”) before spiraling into a universe of twinkling guitars and brazen sentimentality. As new generations discovered that universe over the years, the house on the album’s jacket became a familiar touchstone in the alt music landscape. Because although they weren’t the first emo band, American Football were the first to push one crucial aspect of the genre’s sound to its limit. They were the first to explore just how delicate — just how undistorted, really — the chaos of youth could sound.
So, what happens when you fast-forward 17 years and remove youth from the equation? And not just youth, but all the trappings of youth that often go unregarded: the freedom to pursue art above all other endeavors, for example, or the anything-goes atmosphere of those college house parties where American Football played a smattering of their first shows. The recently reunited band took nearly two decades to put out their sophomore album, also called American Football, and the result feels like revisiting an old friend after falling out of touch for a while. It’s the same, you’re the same, and yet, somehow, everything’s different.
Those who have followed guitarist and vocalist Mike Kinsella in his career as Owen will hardly need any time to adjust to American Football upon first listen. In many ways, the album resembles Kinsella’s own singer-songwriter project far more than it does American Football’s 1999 debut. Like Owen’s album from earlier this year, The King of Whys, it dwells on the heartbreaks of middle age, probing the fault lines that develop after the rosebuds have been gathered and the bar crowds have gone home.
American Football is a darker, more introspective experience than its predecessor, inviting us inside the house on that album’s cover only to discover that the locks have changed and the rooms are all occupied with ghosts. Opener “Where Are We Now” makes this clear, using the house as a symbol of time’s unrelenting thrust forward. “We’ve been here before,” Kinsella muses, his voice sounding more subdued, more distinctively his own 17 years after the first visit. “We’ll figure it out like that goddamn door/ We just need a skeleton key.” That sentiment is followed by one of American Football’s trademark extended instrumental sections, in which the rest of the band weaves guitar melodies and drum sections together as if trying to forge the aforementioned key.
It’s difficult to describe how comforting these sections can be to listen to, though why they’re comforting is rather easier to pin down. Anyone who’s been following the “twinklecore” arm of the 2010s emo revival should be sick to death of clean, precise guitar riffs by this point, but nobody does this stuff quite like Kinsella and fellow guitarist Steve Holmes. Rather than derivative, their interwoven melodies sound like the products of a fierce and restless imagination; to listen to, say, the extended instrumental outro of “Born To Lose” is to realize just how huge a debt groups like Into It. Over It., Balance and Composure, and countless others owe to the duo’s partnership. And then to listen to their interplay with drummer Steve Lamos on the sharp but musically adventurous lead single “I’ve Been So Lost for So Long”, well, it’s clear that American Football haven’t really gone anywhere in the years since their last activity. They’ve simply grown up.
With growing up comes a more straightforward, down-to-business approach that has its pros and cons for the band. The meandering nature of the first American Football record made it easier for the listener to get lost — and to really embrace that lack of direction. The songs here tend to be far easier to locate oneself within, with traditional verse and chorus parts and more lyrical hooks in place of a younger Kinsella’s soaring yowls. Which isn’t to say the album is less musically interesting — Nate Kinsella’s pounding bass line in “Give Me the Gun” is an especially new twist — but it’s definitely more polished. The album’s near-uniform beauty makes a song like “Desire Gets In the Way”, with its slippery riffs and refreshingly raw vocal performance, stand out as almost gritty. “I’m down for whatever/ The uglier the better,” Kinsella sings, but this is about as ugly as American Football gets. Here is a band that prides itself on finding points of incision rather than bludgeoning the listener with noise and emotion, and they use their tools with near-surgical precision. For being out of practice for so long, that’s pretty impressive.
The clarity of latter-day American Football’s musical vision is offset, somewhat, by the messy, tortured themes Kinsella explores in his lyrics. No longer is he chasing the girl or simply licking his regrets like fresh wounds. Instead, he’s contemplating the fragility of adult relationships (“Oh, how I wish that I were me/ The man that you first met and married”), the destructive power of impulse (“I want to taste a little bit of everything/ But it gets me in trouble”), and the sheer pointlessness of it all (“This will be forgotten/ By history and scholars alike”). Emo and existential crises don’t really mix all that well — the whole point of emo is caring too much about something, not questioning whether it matters — so this might not be the record that inspires the next wave of young songwriters.
It will, however, give the older ones something to chew on. Because when old hearts break, the culprit isn’t always quite as clear. American Football isn’t an album that will make you remember college. It’s an album that will make you remember the time you went back to your college town years later, only to find that your old rental has been boarded up and your favorite bar has been turned into a KFC. It’ll make you remember that weird, wistful emotion that isn’t quite sadness but isn’t quite anything else, either. Because, while their music may sound as fresh as ever, American Football’s message these days is clear: time takes everything.
Essential Tracks: “Where Are We Now” “Born To Lose”, “Desire Gets In the Way”