A lot can happen in seventeen years. Come to think of it, seventeen years ago was a whole millennium ago. It also happened to be the year (1999 if you need prompting) that a talented, unprepossessing three-piece from small-town Illinois released their first and, until now only, full LP. That album, American Football, was a modest cornerstone for the emo bands and math-rockers of the noughties, full of pretty, criss-crossing guitar patterns and tricky but refined drum parts. Fast-forward to 2016, and American Football have done it again – almost literally.
For starters they’ve given their new album the same name (they’ve helpfully added “(LP2)” at the end, presumably if only to prevent your alphabetical music library from having a fit).
American Football have done it again – almost literally.
It might seem a bit lazy or derivative to compare a band’s latest effort to an album they put out nearly twenty years ago, but it feels a lot like the band themselves are pointing us in that direction. The guitar fades in, swinging left and right, as though from some time-warp, and when vocalist Mike Kinsella sighs “We’ve been here before” early on during the album opener ‘Where Are We Now’, we know we’re in for a nostalgia trip.
Fans of the old American Football (do we have to call it LP1 now?) will be pleased to hear lots of the band’s familiar hallmarks. Kinsella and other guitarist Steve Holmes have dusted off the very same guitars, amps and pedals, and haven’t touched a single switch or knob. The result is largely the same dripping, jangling, Steve Reich-y conversations between the two instruments, which form the basis of most of LP2’s placid charm.
Kinsella’s voice is the main element that has changed since last time. The now 39-year-old has shed the straining, yelping teenager and become a much more confident, central presence, moving from the back corner of the room right up to the microphone. His voice is more weighty now, but still pretty, echoing the floating guitars that back it up.
Though rare, there are some moments of understated brilliance on LP2. ‘Give Me The Gun’ is a highlight, especially with the introduction halfway through of a more pointillist guitar line and its cutely resonant resolution. Otherwise, the album feels mostly safe, keeping a tight lid on the scale of its ambitions. There is not as much tidy syncopation as on LP1, favouring instead more well-trodden, less experiemental grooves, and when the rhythm section do get their turn to show off, they risk muddying the structure of songs like ‘Born To Lose’.
Kinsella has shed the straining, yelping teenager and become a much more confident, central presence
The lyrics are classically confessional, introverted emo fare, with a few strands of greying hair showing through. Kinsella’s poetry remains quite unsophisticated, and luckily gets away with being quite forgettable most of the time. On one or two occasions, though, some phrases stick out uncomfortably: “We’ll lie here forever like condemned criminals on trial” hangs clunkily over the melody of ‘Desire Gets in the Way’. This is the worst of it though, and even a song with as cringe-making a name as ‘I Need a Drink (Or Two, Or Three)’ doesn’t suffer the same pitfalls.
It is, of course, entirely possible to enjoy this new album without any knowledge of the band’s other one. But ‘enjoy’ just about sums it up – LP2, despite its pleasant, sometimes cerebral warmth, is not going to start any fires. When the trumpet, thankfully employed only once on this album (they seemed to insist upon it back in ’99), turns up towards the end of ‘Everyone Is Dressed Up’, we become acutely aware that American Football have returned to their comfort zone. Hopefully we might even see them break out of it next time – though fingers crossed we won’t have to wait seventeen years.