American Football (LP2)
by Chad Jewett
So much of what made American Football’s first album so special was the record’s keen sense of time and place. Released in 1999 and accumulating its legend ever since, American Football captured a certain post-adolescent way of seeing; a premature nostalgia; a very specific melancholy that could double as an almost ecstatic form of quiet comfort. Few albums work so as well as both genre touchstones and the musical equivalents of dog-eared Salinger paperbacks. Somehow, it’s all there in the LP’s striking, masterpiece of a cover: an upward glance at the second story of a Midwestern farmhouse, its windows aglow, the night sky a leafy emerald blanket spread out in expanse. It’s as definitive an image as you could ever hope to see for an album that seems so rooted to quiet dramas and the archetypal wistfulness of American Suburbia. Each and every song on American Football felt like it was wrestling with growing up, with things left unsaid, with the just-barely-tangible feelings that you can imagine tangling up in the glow of those two windows, soaking in the autumnal chill of that open sky. There are “leaving” albums; there are “college” albums. American Football is a “leaving for college” album.
The record’s forty minutes seemed set to one night in one neighborhood amongst one group of friends. Which, not coincidentally, is how it is so often heard. Emo earned its loyalty by telegraphing comfort and familiarity; just count the number of albums whose covers feature stylized Polaroids of everyday objects. The difference is that American Football found the sublime in the familiar – a reassuring investment in the cinematic way we remember certain evenings and certain moments as culminations. Then they figured out how to soundtrack that. That front image, its pastoral vision of sadness, poetry, and possibility, it is to emo what the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band was to psychedelia: a synecdoche – an snapshot standing in for the whole.
So it’s fitting that the band’s newest album, also titled American Football but destined to be known as “LP2,” features that same farmhouse, but this time from the inside looking out. Where the first album found its first-person narrator out on the lawn, its camera-eye pitched hopefully upward at a domestic space that is never quite so remote as it is between childhood and adulthood (in other words, the exact post-adolescent age range that the LP1 grasps with such clear-sightedness), its sequel is now settled in that very same home, grown up and still unsure. There’s still some sense of longing — of incompleteness. The front door is pitched open, a triangle of sunlight beaming in. To the right is a set of stairs, leading up to those same rooms that left their mysterious glow two decades ago. And as with this album’s predecessor, that picture – one of both lived-in comfort and quietly thrumming doubt, defines the record over which it’s painted.
There were initial reactions to the album’s first single, the crisp, swirling “I’ve Been So Lost For So Long”, that cast the track as an ostensible Owen song — more akin to the quiet craft of singer Mike Kinsella’s fifteen-year solo project than to the minimalism and restraint of American Football. It’s an odd critique; one that seems to miss the irony that of course the winding major-key arpeggios of one Kinsella project will recall the winding major-key arpeggios of another. If the added decoration – harmonies, an obvious boost in production values, more pronounced bass – necessarily divorces “I’ve Been So Lost” (and, in reality, the entirety of the album) from the spartan, dusty bedroom post-rock of LP1, it does so in service of a confidence and brightness that is lovely in its own right. The honesty of 1999’s American Football stood out. The same holds true from 2016’s version, an album that shows every bit of growth that Kinsella, Steve Lamos, and Steve Holmes have made in two decades.
But the other reality that that reaction to “So Lost” missed was that Owen only came along after American Football, taking up a mid-20’s malaise and an early 30’s disquiet the same way Kinsella’s earlier band broached late-undergrad wistfulness. In other words, now that the singer’s ever-updating generational lens is on questions of fatherhood and a hard-to-define late-30s, we’ve never been farther in Kinsella’s narrative work from the giddy sadness of youth that American Football poeticized so brilliantly. We’re used to Owen songs about the shock of being a parent, walking by old haunts and the markers of past mistakes, recast as reminders of how we want better things and easier lessons for our kids. Last time we heard from American Football, the storytellers practically were those kids.
That contrast – the ways in which the album truly seems to account for every one of those intervening 17 years – is much of what makes it special, and a success. Spend all the time you will with this record; the overwhelming feeling is that of a character study maintained across two volumes. The sentiments, regrets, memories, and slowly fading snapshots of LP2 all seem to reverberate with and ache from the accidental archetypes of LP1. The trio that is American Football (along with bassist Nate Kinsella) benefit from understanding and confronting that “American Football” has accumulated a hell of a lot of meaning, most of it while all three members were off not being this band. Thus we get an opening track like “Where Are We Now”, whose title, sentiment, and opening lines all telegraph a knowingness about what an American Football album in 2016 means: “Where are we now? / We’re both home alone in the same house” and later, “We’ve been here before / But I don’t remember a lock on the door”. The sense memory of that farmhouse is back (it’s nearly impossible to hear “Where Are We Now” as anything other than an establishing shot of that same quiet suburban setting, 20 years later), but so is the floating, ethereal dotting of notes that closed out the band’s first album, now gathering back into focus to begin its second.
American Football strikes that careful balance throughout – one eye on the overwhelming attachment so many seem to have to a record that the band likely associates with entirely different versions of themselves, the other eye on making an album that isn’t designed to be some box-checking reboot, that does speak to a present-tense vitality. It’s the other way of understanding the updates and embellishments of “I’ve Been Lost For So Long”, the silvery pastoral folk that begins “Home Is Where The Haunt Is” (another song that seems to nod to the spaces and moods of the 1999 album), the electronically-inflected groove and ghostly vibraphone harmonies of “Give Me The Gun” (an absolute stand-out here). LP2 succeeds most when it bends the band’s most salient moves just enough to fit in new ideas and approaches. You can see this clearest on songs like “My Instincts Are The Enemy”, built from those same climbing-vine guitars, that same deceptive, jazz-like rhythm (in this case, a 4/4 beat that seems to re-start in odd spots), but with added harmonies on loan from the ghostly At Home With Owen. When the song pulls exactly the kind of trick you’d associated with American Football, an outro that layers guitars in 4/4 over drums in 3/4 you get a reminder of just what makes this band so indelible, even as Mike Kinsella adds a loping, poignant vocal (“I need you more than ever / Tell me what you see”) that would have been eschewed in favor of silence two decades earlier.
The album sounds incredible; rich and bright with an extra punch that stills keeps the lived-in, unassuming warmth of its predecessor. Produced by Jason Cupp, LP2 strikes a careful balance between added low-end (the biggest aesthetic difference from American Football’s debut) and the familiar bare-wire sharpness of Kinsella and Holmes’ guitars, the element that would keep the band tied to the post-hardcore of D.C. and Chicago even as they embraced the rhythms of post-bop and the layered harmonic sheets of Steve Reich. Indeed, it is the lovely production of LP2 that stands out the first few times around. Even the album’s (relatively) weakest song, “I Need A Drink (or Two, or Three)” – which trades in boozy clichés that fit neither the increasingly nuanced material of post-I Do Perceive Owen nor the more sober, humble narratives of American Football – is made essential for the waltzing trumpet that gradually lights the song’s intro and the dense rhythmic bustle that fills its coda.
Credit the band also with being willing to explore open space with moments of real quiet – an aesthetic in their DNA that defines American Football as much as any other arrow in their quiver. It’s that ability to pair almost absolute minimalism to striking, classicist melodies that informs the extended rhythm breaks of “Give Me The Gun” or the long, galloping outro of “Born To Lose”. Yet, as satisfying as the album’s return to the ruminative, witching hour poignancy of LP1 ends up being, one of this record’s most triumphant moments comes when the band hews farthest from its own patterns. “Desire Gets In The Way”, which bounds forward in a 4/4 bounce that once again sounds like anything but standard time, is a surprising bit of effusiveness on an album that is otherwise devoted to a late-night hush. Kinsella’s vocals arc effervescently upward (“This fire burns! / Incessantly! / I can’t lie, I kind of like the pain / I know you’ll put it out! You always put it out! Before it consumes me!!!”) and the song rolls along in a cheery major key, bending the band’s signature guitar needlepoints into a cheery sparkle. If anything, the song recalls Kinsella’s work with post-hardcore supergroup Their/They’re/There, especially in the way it finds room for tunefulness in sheer rhythmic complexity.
It’s a moment of daring effusiveness that both lends the album a joyous bit of electricity that LP1 didn’t have and earns this record’s most distinct return to the language of that first record. Patiently floating in atop a pair of cycling guitars that eventually add that familiar, film noir trumpet that characterized the most crowd-pleasing moments of 1999’s American Football, “Everyone Is Dressed Up” most explicitly echoes those earlier days, a nostalgia only bolstered by Kinsella’s lyrics: “Wild nights when we were younger / We thought we’d live forever / At least we’ll die together.” It’s a sentiment that strikingly embodies both why we care so much about American Football and what American Football can still offer 20 years later: fatalism and romanticism, a stoic’s dark comedy and an optimist’s warmth — all mixed up into something heartbreaking and lovely.