FEATURE: “Thinking About Leaving”: Revisiting American Football
by Chad Jewett
American Football is a humble epic of backyards and liminal spaces. An album of subtle waves, like breeze through rye, its forty minutes consist of gently insistent major keys and melodies that unfurl, tangle, and loop like ivy forking across collegiate brick, like unshorn summer grass, knitted up yet loose to the touch. There are few albums that feel so of a piece with the knotted world of suburbia yet so intangibly wild, which of course means that American Football’s sole album captures exactly what it feels like to be a product of suburbia (Mike Kinsella grew up in Chicago’s northern ‘burbs), where “possibility” means the interlude between streets, wide open spans of twilight unfenced by anything but trees. You get the sense that a lot of American Football consists of cataloging conversations had in cars outside of houses, on drives of small distances. The album is rich with the mixed feelings of hometowns and familiar sidestreets.
It’s why there is no front image more evocative in the entirety of emo’s thirty year catalogue than the night-time shot that graces the cover of American Football: a camera craning upward (you can feel the motion in your neck, the physicality of looking up into the sky), capturing the second story of a pale farmhouse, a spindly, autumn oak spanning the left corner like a cobweb or a starburst. In the second story of the house, a backlit window, emitting only a rectangle of light, a glowing panel of mystery deeply permeated with the wonder of the album (or perhaps it works in reverse – after all you, see that picture first, preparing you for the album’s mini-dramas of square acre scale), its rich investment in the hidden splendor and heartbreak and enigma of American youth. (The photo and album design were handled by Chris Strong, whose work has all but defined emo’s visual aesthetic).
There’s someone on the lawn, and there’s someone in the house. We’re left to fill it all in, even though the album gently guides us towards matters of heartbreak and ennui and departure and well-met disappointment. Above there is only a tinted sky, even though we’re used to stars. In fact, that’s one of the things people say to defend the remove of the suburbs – you can see the stars at night. Instead, American Football provides its own constellations, its own map of halting, tired, heartsick, charmed growing up. In some ways, the cover image of American Football might largely be responsible for the way so many people have come to find such haloed places for the album in their lives.
Few images seem to literalize the albums they contain quite like that nighttime scene. A lot of American Football feels intangibly twilit. The record is pleasingly sylvan, the guitars bendable and cool enough to evoke the greenspace of that evening vista. It is also wholly autumnal (except when it isn’t, which we’ll get to), and that naked tree can feel like a totem for all the record’s obsessions with the fleeting nature of youth and its attachments. The interior of American Football (especially now in the gorgeous deluxe edition released by Polyvinyl – the occasion for this feature) features lovely shots of mid-western farm land, laying fallow and wispy in fall, a weak blue sky seen through a thicket of coppery, brambling trees; a marsh layered with a dust blanket of snow and a few cursive lines of golden straw in winter. Though Mike Kinsella rarely sets his scenes, the imagery surrounding the album makes the spaces where the record’s tough conversations and half-hearted acceptances occur indelible. You picture these last days of summer and these final attempts at closure in just these expanses of bucolic Midwest. The album is positively Whitman-esque in that way – American dramas in American spaces. Opening the gatefold of American Football means entering a very real time and place, one overloaded with meanings and very, very willing to make room for our versions of these stories. Which is why we’re still talking about it.
Despite the record’s affably clumsy beginning – a quick snarl of guitars, a trill of snare and cymbals, a count-off – which gives us more of a self-conscious introduction than most albums, American Football has always felt like it began halfway through the short-story, or novel, or slice-of-life movie that it evokes. It’s a sunset record, but we’re meant to feel the whole day. Indeed, Mike Kinsella’s first words seem to be rendering a conversation just beginning to fade: “Let’s just forget everything said; everything we did: ‘best friends’, and ‘better halfs’: ‘goodbyes.’” It’s a cagey way to begin an album, telling us to forget things we didn’t know about in the first place; which of course makes us want to know more than ever. That’s what I feel will always be at the root of American Football’s lone LP: the ways in which it gives us glimpses and shades and synecdoche and sets us down in the middle, to fill in the rest, knowing, quite cannily that we’re more than happy to dig around, looking for truths. That we almost need to. Or, perhaps more truthfully, that we’ll have our own versions ready. The last real detail of the song is its finest, perhaps the album’s most gorgeously modest image: “…And the autumn night when we realized we were falling out of love.” There’s a lovely economy to that sentence, charged with pathos that avoids melodrama, a sylvan image of fall (remember all of those still-life snapshots that stage the song) that suits the album’s bronze-and-green aura. American Football always seems to be fading, since so much of its rhythms and harmonies and gently tangled guitars are so impressionistic and inward, since its narratives are always so gripped with premature nostalgia, with last talks that seem to want to stand in for more.
That feeling of fading, of eclipse, of the chilly wash of equinox, is the album’s chief aesthetic. “Never Meant” washes into “The Summer Ends,” where guitars murmur and settle like leaves (Kinsella and Steve Holmes glimmer around one another like strands of ribbon — that the band’s double-knotted guitar aesthetic was largely thought up as a utilitarian thickening agent underlines the serendipity that surrounds this record like a humble aura), where a mournful trumpet lopes in cascades like weak sun through bronzing maples. Steve Lamos, whose drumming is almost startlingly intuitive throughout, so tight is his grasp on the album’s September/October mood, largely limits his play to a stuttering tom drum, a pensive bit of repetition. Kinsella’s words are spartan enough to quote in full:
“I’m thinking about leaving and how I should say goodbye. With a handshake, or an embrace, or a kiss on the cheek, or possibly all three. Well maybe I’ve been wrong. Maybe my intentions are irrelevant. But honestly, it’s not just for me. We’ve both been so unhappy; so let’s just see what happens when the summer ends.”
Of course the song, and the whole album, feels like summer is already over. It’s here where you really grasp the poignancy of the band naming many of these songs after their last phrase. American Football is an album obsessed with endings, and even the record’s more buoyant, Arcadian, spring-like moments (“Honestly” and “You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon” come to mind) have shortening days on their minds. Everything is always glimpsed in passing, on the way back.
There are ways of hearing “Honestly” as a more specific kind of nostalgia, a song wholly built around reaching back. In Steve Holmes’ terrific liner note reminiscences, he notes the ways in which the twin, spinning riffs at the song’s center were essentially constructed to mirror one another in echoes, a tempting literalization of the album’s through-line of memories, reverberations, and looks back. If Mike Kinsella’s poetics on American Football are almost absurdly expert in their precision, in the surefire economy with which he renders scenes with only a few bare sentences, then “Honestly” is a sort of apex, a Rosetta Stone for what makes the album so affecting, so essential. “Honestly I can’t remember (teen dreams). All my teenage feelings, and the meanings: They seemed too see-through to be true.” Yet how far could the album really be from those teenage feelings? Is it even out from beneath them? Think of that evening-scape perspective on the record’s cover and think of how much time you spent staring upward sometime before the end of high school. American Football seems far too anchored to yards and bedroom windows for any real distance from the pre-college narratives that are set in them (hell, even Romeo and Juliet has its most memorable scene play out in a backyard and a second-floor window). The album might not be about teenage feelings, but it lives in a world full of resonances from those years, and might actually find much of its not-unpleasant sadness in revisiting all the places where those everyday dramas play out.
There’s a clarity to this album because it has a once-in-a-lifetime grip on youthful ways of feeling, on cul-de-sac-scaled melodrama. It is “see-through,” but only the way you can see pretty far back looking into a long bunching of trees (I’m reminded again of one of the album’s most evocative insert images – a chilly afternoon sky through the top branches of a copse of maples or oaks). But there are other ways in which “Honestly” feels tied in up in younger years. Specifically, it is the only song on American Football that recalls the nervous, sugar-high energy of Cap’n Jazz (Kinsella’s previous band). In that sense, “Honestly” is a pre-collegiate version of that album’s junior high math-major post-hardcore. The song’s pop-chromatic tree-climb of a riff feels like the sort of ad-hoc, accidental brilliance to be uncovered on “The Sands Have Turned Purple” or “Little League”. The call-and-response ricochets of the song’s verses (“But the whys / But the whyyyys / The whys / Are unclear / Are unclear “) recall the shout-along glee of the best of Analphabetapolothology. Those echoes are followed by a circling spool of guitar, and like the mid-20th-century minimalism that Holmes has cited as an inspiration (specifically Steve Reich, whose circling, tonal Music for 18 Musicians is a touchstone for this sort of major-key American texture), the turning figure models memory, and the way it changes ever so slightly after each pass.
“For Sure” offers the album’s most strikingly autumnal passage, a slow-dissolve bramble of guitars curling under a slow-lofting sunset of trumpet. Much of the album is built around ever-shifting time signatures, rhythms that snap between 7/4 and 6/8 and 4/4 like random number generators (Holmes notes in the deluxe reissue’s liner notes how “You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon” rotates between 3/4, 5/4, and 4/4). “For Sure” elapses in instinctive 4/4, Kinsella playing bass, which leaves Holmes’ guitar free to spangle in newfound clarity. The song’s narrative, concerned, like most of the album, with passing seasons, centers around the arrival of summer, despite the song’s bracing aura of “fall”: “June seems too late, delayed. Maybe for the better; imagine us together…”. The song feels likes its set to the most organic of rhythms, a calendar pace underlined by the naturalism of the song’s C Major key (the key of folk music). “For Sure” is the album’s second shortest passage, and perhaps its finest, folding gently into the shimmering surfaces of “You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon,” a song that literalizes the temporary nature of its title with structures that swiftly unfurl, change, re-form, cycle back.
“I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional” arrives, with each spin, like the album’s central thesis, Kinsella’s most trenchant assessment of the shifting plates of subjectivity before the new narrative heights of Owen. Set to a stuttering disco bass line and twin guitars that dance around each other in sparkling segments like panels of stained glass, Kinsella ponders: “We’re two human beings, individually, with inherent interest in each other and how we relate.” If that seems clinical, the sentiment is warmed by the quickened heart-rate of the song’s early stretches, a pulse that slows into the sylvan glimmer of the song’s second half, where the guitars begin to stretch out like those shafts of straw on the album’s interior, making space for the album’s central missive: “I’ll see you when we’re both not so emotional.” The lyric contains magnitudes: a quick crystallization of the record’s obsession with departures and conditional statements; its recognition of the melodramatic raised stakes of late adolescence; its combination of spartan, Carver-esque literalism and lightly satirical whimsy. To be brief, are there three sentences in all of post-hardcore more indelible? More instantly recognizable? More foundational?
The album fades with the long-form trickle of “Stay Home,” all music-box cycles of glinting guitar figures and the airy cricketing of hi-hats. Like much of the album, there is complication in just how out-of-doors the song’s aural landscape feels – really the album is never so bucolic, so representative of the wide-open spaces of Midwestern drives – versus the interiority of the song’s narrative, concerned with the difficulties of connection: “Don’t leave home again if empathy takes energy; ‘cause everyone feels just like you.” If Mike Kinsella’s lyrics have always tended toward glass-clear legibility, “Stay Home” offers something slightly more opaque, a fraught exploration of how we identify and how we understand one another. “Everyone feels just like you” is a beautifully sentiment, and a beautiful simple one, but it becomes difficult to place in a song about removing oneself from a world that is “so social.”
If there’s a song on the album that feels as if it takes place in that second story bedroom, it’s “Stay Home.” The rest more or less evokes the lawn and the tree on the other side. That’s exactly what’s rendered by the album’s slow-ebbing finale, “The One With The Wurlitzer,” built around a curling melody from the titular electric piano and another doleful trumpet line. Resplendent of the sensation one has while watching a vista from the reverse perspective of a car’s back window, the song is a gentle wisp of a song, the album’s shortest, its most elemental, perhaps its prettiest. “The One With The Wurlitzer” begins fading with an entire ten percent of its runtime left in the balance, leaving no doubt that the album is finally doing what it has been considering the whole of its forty minutes: leaving.
The cult of American Football’s one and only full-length album might just be unprecedented. As I’ve written elsewhere, the record has seemingly benefited from becoming a sort of secret code of re-entry for a new generation of emo bands and listeners, kids who wanted to re-invest in the multivalent world of post-hardcore but found its most recent iterations unworkable. While there may always be a tough critical row for emo to hoe, it’s worth keeping in mind all the facets of the widening genre that made its re-naissance a certainty and a phenomenon worth studying. I’m reminded of Eric Richter’s interview with Washed Up Emo, wherein the Christie Front Drive singer noted that what he remembered (and valued) most from emo and post-hardcore’s mid-90s golden age was the larger scene’s seeming agreement on feminism, anti-racism, egalitarianism in general. If a lot of that might get lost (to everyone’s detriment), and indeed, was papered over by the artistic fallow period of the mid-2000s (and its attendant misogyny and cynicism), then memories of the connections and fellow-feeling and cooperation that post-hardcore could enact are likely largely responsible for its new successes. American Football, whose politics rarely (if ever) branch beyond the personal, is perhaps the album that made that reinfusion of energy possible. By being a flexible, usable, impressionistic collection of songs, almost elemental in its openness, so loose an evocation of American young-ness, American Football could be something around which to rally and rebuild. Just by being thoughtful and willing to explore personal politics, American Football has arguably enabled emo and post-hardcore to re-energize and thus focus on politics of equality, privilege, and social justice beyond the immediate and the personal. Emo could start over with American Football, and did just that.
As such, you can now recognize the shimmering, complex, knotted-up footprints of American Football just about everywhere. Take Joie De Vivre, a Michigan quintet whose aural aesthetic — all clean, tangling guitars and occasional ribbons of horn – obviously recalls American Football, but whose elemental narratives do as well. Take a song like “Martin Park,” which not only trickles in a cyclical major key like “I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emtional,” but also captures that song’s aura of passing time and difficult epiphanies “Tell me how I would get there and why / Tell me how I would get there and why I would go back.” Or consider Annabel and their similarly stunning exploration of the mixed blessings of suburbia and its attendant cementing of memories, disappointments, privileges, and attachments. One could even note the similar visual motif of Youth in Youth and imagine a world where both albums are occurring on the same block, interwoven into the same night like a millennial version of Dazed and Confused.
Foxing’s The Albatross is similarly autumnal, similarly revelatory in the way it makes shifting lines of guitar play and refract like light through a prism. Football, etc. capture the emotional critique of American Football, the band’s 2013 LP Audible exploring the politics of interconnection, set to the clean, poignant sparkle of airy, finely wrought collegiate indie rock in a way that feels like emo’s most successful re-invention of something perfected in 1999. Fellow Texans Two Knights (who once upon a time made “Honestly” a part of their live set) offer a deeply abstracted version of the gentle mathematics to be found on American Football, taking the woven major key placidity of songs like “For Sure” and sewing the spare fabric into a feral crazy quilt, calm passages of post-emo ambiance randomly riven with hardcore angularity, like the jagged pulsing of Stravinsky. Or consider the Midwestern pensiveness of Brave Bird; the jangling slow-dissolve precision of Prawn; the bright, translucent surfaces of Little Big League; the shimmering, everyday melodicism of Petal. There is a middle distance between The World Is A Beautiful Place… at their most nervily cluttered and their most spaciously lunar where their starlit aesthetic resembles the humble reveries of American Football. Their best songs certainly evoke the minor mythology of lived-in spaces and memory-soaked nature images the way American Football does. Consider their earliest songs, obsessed with houses and floors and trees and lawns.
I’ve spent years convinced that American Football was one of indie rock’s great autumn albums. Decorated with images of chilly skies, graying trees, fields and soil and straw rimed with frost, soaked with narratives about leaving, about passing seasons, the record has the not unpleasant chill of October grass, and a similar pale verdance. Fall is when you think about time passing the most; days get shorter, you see people for a month or two that you almost never see otherwise. It’s the world American Football’s one album fits in most saliently, because it’s the world the album captures most saliently.
And yet, as I took a short break from writing this, from trying to tie together all the loose threads and popped stitches of an emo masterpiece, I spent a little time outdoors in May. There’s a college near my old house – where I was spending the weekend – where, for years now, I’ve gone for evening walks, clearing my head amongst the prim, square greenspaces and cool flinty stone of lecture halls and old dormitories. Like most every college in New England, the school is built into a hill, and the various sidewalks and footpaths and near-shaggy lawns fade and swell north to south, up and down, surrounded on all sides by the sturdy, thick trees of the Northeast – oak, maple, bristly pines. Here and there willows and dogwoods flowered, with petals haloed at their feet and brushed across spans of grass, shuttled by the wind. This particular weekend the college was hosting a reunion, and as I made my way between the winding, intercutting walkways of the school, I noticed various generations of alumni, grouped around the edges of white tents, walking to and from cars with warm attention to old buildings, rich with memories. Some of the guests likely booked hotels; others perhaps had drives to make, back to New York or Boston or even further. In that warm bit of pre-twilight, coated with the spring aromas of cut grass and flowering trees and the gently-baked surfaces of New England brick, American Football takes on a different life. You consider the feeling of grass in the yard just below the eave of that house; you wonder if that tree is just getting ready to coat itself anew in leaves. Like our new return to an album, fifteen years on and never quite as beautiful as it is right now, you start to think of American Football as a record just arriving, even if its still always a bit sad about leaving.