It’s not hard to imagine how strange the reunion of American Football must have been for its members. Their 1997 self-titled album, which was recorded when the band was in their last year of college in Urbana, combined earnest energy and understated wistfulness in a style that has been often imitated. Among a certain group of people it’s become a sort of avatar for the fleeting, muddled feelings of youth and early adulthood. Its influence can’t be overstated, and rightly so — the album found a sweet spot in between the various currents of music at the time that has proven a fruitful jumping-off point for an entire generation of musicians.
When American Football re-formed in 2014, the members of the group were pushing 40, and the band accordingly had the task of fitting their diaristic material into something that benefits their status as the elders of emo, with other musical projects, careers and families behind them. Their 2016 album (also self-titled) was accordingly a little awkward even as it was more technically proficient, reflecting nearly two decades of experience. LP2 frequently felt as though the group was trying to transpose the malaise of middle age to the “see-through” teenage angst that their debut leans on. For anyone not familiar with vocalist Mike Kinsella’s solo project Owen, it’s almost strange to hear him sing “Oh how I wish that I were me / The man that you first met and married” with that same naive cadence. LP2 is also a little more sonically conventional. It retains some of the irregular time signatures and bendy, vocal guitar playing that added a crucial third dimension to LP1, but more often than not it settles into a regular groove.
The group’s third (again self-titled) album clears out the band’s old sound pretty much altogether, replacing it with a saturated, effervescent style closer to shoegaze or post-rock. From the opening cascade of glockenspiel and vibraphone on “Silhouettes,” it’s clear the band is working with new materials — there’s an almost orchestral grandeur to the album, a panoramic sweep wholly separate from the stripped-down sound more familiar to the band. The recently-added bassist and multi-instrumentalist Nate Kinsella (cousin of the vocalist) adds several new tone colors, including mallet percussion, a 12-string guitar and a Mellotron. There’s much more fine-tuned detail and several levels of distance to play with. American Football was heretofore defined by a certain economy of means, and LP3 feels like the first time the group has seriously experimented with new instruments, relegating the guitar duet to one element among many.
These songs are also much broader in scope than anything the band has ever done before. “Silhouettes” and “Doom In Full Bloom” are both nearly eight minutes long, and most of the other songs hover around five and six minutes. If we were dealing with the kind of awkwardly self-pitying lyrics on LP2, this could be tiresome — but Kinsella’s lyricism has, for the first time, a sophisticated elegance to it. It’s still as earnest as we’re used to, but without the starkness of LP2.
It’s still possible to hear some of the qualities of LP1 in LP3 — the intertwining guitars in “Every Wave” and “Mine To Miss,” Kinsella’s charming short vocal phrases — but I somehow doubt that someone finding American Football via LP3 would understand the exuberant energy of the band’s first iteration. For all its power, LP3 is pretty obvious and even veers toward filmic at times — it doesn’t have any of the inscrutability and the “wait, what was that?” quality that made LP1 so great. LP3 is mature and settled without repeating itself, but it invites speculation about what the band might have done had they not had to bridge a 15-year gap.