Sadness can’t belong to anyone. To drown in the swell of sadness is as human as breathing, even if the thought scares us. At the same time, our identifications with others, with ideas, with collective identities can trap us into shared traumas, cornering us into communal misery. The agonizing performances through which we disgorge this misery become communal, too. The screaming, the hollow poetry. In the shadow of a global trauma, I am drawn back to these expressions — to the apogee of Midwest Emo, to the twenty-year old heartbreaking masterwork that is American Football’s self-titled album.
In the mid-90s, something was going on in Illinois. Whatever it was, it made the youth there feel restless, alienated and reflective. Bands like Sunny Day Real Estate from Seattle were emerging, drawing from sounds like Nirvana, U2, Talking Heads and Deep Purple to create an iconic, deep emotional experience. They released “Diary” in 1994 to critical acclaim. At the same time, Mark Kinsella and his brother Tim were bouncing around Champaign, Illinois. They put together Cap’n Jazz and released “Burritos, Inspiration Point, Fork Balloon Sports, Cards in the Spokes, Automatic Biographies, Kites, Kung Fu, Trophies, Banana Peels We’ve Slipped On and Egg Shells We’ve Tippy Toed Over” in 1995. It’s been out of print for a long time, but the raw energy it produced carried on. Mike Kinsella initially harnessed that energy in creating Joan of Arc, a band whose sound featured dark, multi-layered acoustics and soft electronics. But then came Kinsella’s American Football in 1999.
American Football has haunted me for a long while now. The hectic and thick guitar riffs layered over distant, hopeless vocals create a sense of nostalgia for something that has never existed. The anti-rhythm that most of American Football’s songs drum along to is both affecting and disorienting. Their music recalls ideas and memories that are aesthetically afflicted. The near absence of vocals forces listeners to make sense of the layered instruments, to paint pictures out of the sound. What emerges reaches deep into the soul and tears your heart out.
The band’s sound, with its irregular time signatures, draws on math rock. The songs American Football produces are meant to draw attention to itself, to break free from convention and pattern. Sometimes, songs will change time signatures mid-song, like in “Honestly,” which returns to standard time for its extensive riff-driven ending, each beat enunciated because listeners easily cling to the pattern. Likewise, American Football’s sound is heavily influenced by indie-rock. Catchy, almost-dreamy riffs are layered over distant vocals. The lyrics are sparse on most of the songs on the LP. It isn’t so much what Kinsella is saying, but rather the feeling created by the sounds collectively, as the album moves through a story of nostalgia and the loss of innocence.
There are plenty of choices when it comes to picking one’s emotional poison. Why not have your heart ripped out by Brand New’s “The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me” (or even their woefully neglected “Science Fiction”)? Or maybe “Diary” by Sunny Day Real Estate. Weezer’s “Pinkerton,” “Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge” by My Chemical Romance. All of these are good options.
However, I recommend giving Midwest Emo a try. The sound is milder, the lyrics hit harder. American Football’s careful work in creating a gentle detonation has led others to reach for the sound. Modern Baseball, of Philadelphia, was founded with a focus on the sound of the ’90s. Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) and Hot Mulligan, both from Michigan, have repurposed Midwest Emo and its distinctive sound. Charmer, a band based in the U.P., just released their album “Ivy” as a quintessentially Midwest Emo album.
The Midwest is so often thought of as homogenous, as conservative and contained. The Heartland, surrounded by country and away from the world of the coast. But Midwest Emo is about breaking free of those conventions, about mashing things together until you arrive at what feels most authentic and honest. While quarantined, we might all become suffocated by the walls, contained by stay-at-home orders. With nowhere to run, where do you scream? American Football feels that pain. They put it to music.