American Football
American Football

7/10

Release Date: October 21st, 2016
Producer: American Football and Jason Cupp
Polyvinyl Records

17 years after their debut, 2nd-wave emo noodlers American Football return with the identically titled American Football. Viewed side-by-side, the two cover images look like they were shot in the same evening back before the turn of this century. Listen to these records together provides a similar experience. In fact, it does not go far enough to say that American Football (2016) could be treated like sides 3 and 4 of the group’s debut.  What is truly remarkable is that a record released in 2016 can be free of any discernible influence of music released since 2000. As much as can be said about the quality of the songs here (I’ll get to that in a minute), you could write a book about the cyclical nature of musical generations and sensibilities that makes this year’s American Football such a pleasure.

Truth be told, the timing of this recording is not due to some grand marketing tactic to fill the need for earnest, personal, brainy rock. Vocalist and guitarist Mike Kinsella, guitarist Steve Lamos, and drummer Steve Homes reunited in 2014 for a handful of festival appearances that coincided with the reissue of their first record. As Holmes told Pitchfork at that time, “”Obviously, we knew the time was ripe for three middle-aged dudes to play some old songs about teenage feelings, and stand around tuning guitars for a long time.”

Holmes’s quote says much about the approach the band took in creating their latest album. AF2K16 is, despite relying-heavily on technical playing, fluid time signatures, and atmospheric arrangements, a record nearly entirely free of pretension due to its loyalty to the band’s 1999 identity. While their contemporaries used successive albums to experiment with varying genres, gaining new fans with this release, alienating old ones with the next, American Football had the unique vantage point to see their sole release spread its influence, without any pressure to follow-up. Kinsella has not stagnated, releasing eight studio albums and one covers album with Owen on Polyvinyl since American Football disbanded, but it is clear that the intention here is not for the original lineup to get back together and explore “new” territory. It is an almost enviable position to be in, and you’ve got to wonder if a band like Jimmy Eat World or Death Cab for Cutie would enjoy the same kind of comfort had they gone their separate ways after Clarity or We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, only to reunite in the modern day.

Every song’s title on American Football is that track’s first line. Songs like “Born to Lose” and “I Need a Drink (Or Two or Three)” are about exactly what you would assume. Yes, this could be called “thinking man’s rock,” but AF is not making us work hard to decipher hidden meanings between the lyrics. What’s there to really sink one’s teeth into is the interplay of the musicians. Two-and-a-half minutes into “My Instincts Are the Enemy,” the song begins a “how to” for constructing an American Football song, with Kinsella’s and Lamos’s indistinguishable guitars blending straight 4/4 runs. The bass enters next, bouncing triplets, later joined by the drums and vocals, creating a trademark meshing of time signatures, and showing us just how naturally it comes to these guys so many years later. This is also about the moment where you are either fully in the grips of the album or exhausted from its complexity. Those who stick it out are rewarded with a brilliant collection of songs whose devotion to such a defined process and self-awareness are scarce today.

The three songs that AF has made available for streaming (As well as the full album)  prior to its release are all built upon calculated, unexpected turns. The resulting 9 songs sound as if their composition was created via the I Ching. “I’ve Been So Lost for So Long” bends its rhythm back and forth, playfully backing one of the album’s best melodies. “Desire Gets in the Way” begins with an anthemic, sing along hook, but by the time it reaches the bridge and chorus, it remembers that this audience would rather cry into their beers than cheers them in a crowded club. On “Give Me the Gun,” a calm, concerned Kinsella talks down a friend (“I know where your mind goes when you’re left alone.”) over a frantic Holmes drum beat, which when combined with Kinsella and Lamos’s syncopated guitars (and also, this one’s got vibraphone), morphs into a sample-worthy dance section.

The closer, “Everyone is Dressed Up,” with its reflection on the fleeting (“This will be forgotten by history and scholars alike / Another moment of impulse lost in time”) could be seen as hedging their bets, but at least for the time being, American Football is a welcome release, proving that their particular brand of confessional, spacious music is perhaps more timeless than it may have seemed back then. Fans of American Football and their contemporaries will get many enjoyable listens out of this album, and fans of just about any of the plethora of subgenres of modern “indie rock” would do well to check this out.

-Tim @listenthisweek

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