Monday, March 25, 2019

album review: 'american football (2019)' by american football

I think there's a lot of people who forget that emo was a thing in the 90s.

Now granted, this was material I had to rediscover years later - I certainly wasn't that cool when I was eight or nine - but if you were in the right circles there was a vibrant reinvention going on after the genre kind of went quiet at the end of the 80s, and by the end of the 90s, the genre was on the cusp of a mainstream breakthrough... from a certain point of view. And that was the funny thing: for every band like Jimmy Eat World and The Get Up Kids and Dashboard Confessional actually moving units, there was still a thriving underground that was pushing the sound and scope of emo into more artistic directions, usually with inroads into the indie rock and college rock scenes. Many of these acts would lay the foundation for third-wave emo today... and in the midst of all of this in 1999, a band called American Football released a self-titled album. Now keep in mind that you could track the evolution and growth of emo just through certain members of the band - frontman Mike Kinsella was a founding member of Cap'n'Jazz who also put out one seminal full-length album before falling apart - but American Football was different if only because the ideas felt less organized, pulling from post-rock and free jazz and a windswept tone that lacked the immediacy of most midwestern emo, but remained as compelling. 

And as such, the alchemy was not built to last - after one album that was destined to become a cult classic, the band broke up and went on to various scattered directions both in and out of music... so fast forward to 2014, the self-titled album is reissued, and fans lose their shit, especially when there are hints that the band is reuniting. And to pretty much everyone's shock, not only did it happen they actually released an album in 2016, a second self-titled project right in the middle of the third-wave they inspired. And... well, it was good - not quite great but it never needed to be, a more rounded and accessible reunion that owes a little too much to Kinsella's long-running solo project Owen that had enough to hit the nostalgia centers of all the old fans of the first American Football album who settled down, got jobs, had kids, and put their yearning in the closet.

So I'd argue I was more surprised that American Football were putting out an album this year - it makes sense that the band would want to see more from their critical resurgence and a cult fanbase, but you can only milk nostalgia for so long. So with that in mind, what did we get from the third self-titled album from American Football?

So you'd think with all the preamble I'd have more to say about this project... but the weird thing upon every relisten through this album from American Football, the more I'm feeling strangely distant from it. It's definitely a departure away from the nostalgia security blanket they had for their comeback and a more unsettled experience as a whole... but with every listen it's hard to avoid parallels to similar acts in this lane, less in emo or post-rock and more looking towards progressive rock. Again, not saying this is bad - I certainly get why the fans like this, as there's enough here to align with what people like about American Football and Mike Kinsella specifically... but given how much this album is venturing away from that old homestead, I'd be remiss not to show where this album isn't quite as revolutionary as that breakthrough once was.

And look, I might as well say it now or it's going to overshadow the entire review: this album sounds like if a modern Steven Wilson project crossed over with Elbow and opted for more pillowy emo than prog rock or metal... and then forgot the hooks altogether. Now if your retort to this is, 'wait, this is American Football, they've never given a shit about hooks when so much of their debut was meandering and influenced by jazz and more about cultivating the soundscape than structure', and that's absolutely true - about the debut. But if you dig into the compositional structure and textures that American Football has adopted since they've come back, there's less of that ramshackle sense of experimentation, where the cyclical guitar loops and meditative groove patterns could swerve abruptly with a verve that might have patterns but felt a little less structured, more organic. Whereas on a compositional level, since the comeback American Football has leaned into more established song structures and studied cadences - and while the first comeback release was noted for its parallels to Kinsella's solo project Owen, with the increased focus on glittery atmospherics, twinkling keys, supple grooves, and crystal clear production, plus Kinsella's willowy vocal delivery and addition of female backing singers and then songs like 'Every Wave To Ever Rise' and 'Doom In Full Bloom' where his vocal melodies on hooks are blatant lifts, it's hard not to feel like I could get many of these same ideas from Steven Wilson circa Hand Cannot Erase, just with fewer minor chord progressions and less distortion. Now normally this wouldn't be a problem - I'm a huge Steven Wilson fan, after all - but instead of following his lead and picking up actual hooks - something that with every layer of polish The War On Drugs also picked up, a valid comparison given similar glistening tones and midwestern angst - this album is more content to meander in extended, wistful passages that might be pretty and pleasant, but don't seem to go much of anywhere. Now granted, that might be part of the point, aiming to cultivate more of a searching, reflective mood where the truth comes in muddy shades of grey coloured by well-framed moral ambiguity and depression - but if you're looking for a note of climax or clarity or even contrast, you're not really going to find it in a long, melancholic wallow that could really afford some dimensionality.

And what's a little weird is how you can tell that that someone might have approached the band mid-recording to tell them, 'you know, the album is a little slow, you might want to turn the tempos up a few notches here, or add a bit of edge' - and while songs like 'Every Wave To Ever Rise' and 'I Can't Feel You' add some flattened grind to the guitars midway back and ratchet up the basslines, it leads to a weird feeling where there's clearly tension and intensity in places where you're expecting a swerve or a crescendo... but it's a boil that returns to a simmer without ever exploding or even surprising, mostly because the more spacious keyboard and ethereal guitar passages remain midtempo or if they do pick up it's deeper into the mix - hell, there are tremolo guitar passages on 'Uncomfortably Numb' that are the most blatant of post-rock moves, but never to the point of driving the melodic focus; hell, the lingering horns get more focus than that! And I do place some of the focus, if not outright blame, on the vocals as well - again, I get that Kinsella has never been a dynamic or visceral singer, but it's hard to avoid a feeling of wistful but bleary detachment only exacerbated by the reverb-touched female vocals around him. Hell, you got Hayley Williams on 'Uncomfortably Numb' and am I the only one who feels underwhelmed - getting Rachel Goswell of Slowdive as a husky backing presence on 'I Can't Feel You' makes sense, at least. But the self-titled revival of Slowdive is a comparison that springs to mind with this album, because there's a similar lack of deeper warmth in the recording and textures overall that I think wouldn't have been amiss.

Now normally in emo this would be where I'd point to the songwriting and themes for added texture and context, especially surrounding the lack of that warmth... and where you're reminded that Kinsella as a songwriter operates more on the principle of scattered emotive and abstract fragments rather than a clear message or narrative, fractured character portraits where enough detail sets the scene but the rest is set into the haze. And I consider this a high-risk, high-reward brand of songwriting in emo, where the topics are intensely personal and vulnerable and so heavily reliant on autobiography that normally you want the added detail to paint a nuanced or at least vivid scene. If you can nail the mood in a few words or a perfect turn of phrase, you've got something spare and powerful... but if you don't, you've got moments that feel undercooked or even basic. And I'm frustrated to say that American Football fall on both sides of the line with this. On the one hand, it absolutely makes sense that this is a colder album given the lingering emotional distance and cavernous fractures in relationships that characterize the eight songs we get here - the chill numbness makes sense. And I absolutely think there are good moments: the slow wilting of love across 'Every Wave To Ever Rise' is heartbreaking, and how sons become their fathers and flimsily deny responsibility adds a lot of palpable tragedy to 'Uncomfortably Numb'. Hell, I think there's a seed of a powerful idea on 'Life Support', how the grief that many men have been often told to set behind us as adolescent or immagure hasn't left, which leads to the conflict of how to express it in a way that provides release and closure - in terms of the relevance of emo for an older audience, that's potent as all hell! Shame that there are songs where the mark seems completely missed, like the cloying self-aggrandizement of 'Heir Apparent' that tries to tap into generational angst and yet with that child-choir outro comes across really heavy-handed, or the tepid melancholy of 'Doom In Full Bloom', and then there's the line on 'Mine To Miss' that was way more revealing than it should be: 'I need a maid or another mother / More than the strain of an absent lover'. Which yes, reflects the regression he so desperately wants only for the final line to highlight how he has to keep moving forward, but you'd think for those steps forward there would actually be resolution or clarity or at the very least more coherent questions, not just a lingering, dreary blur.

So look, I can imagine if you've followed thus far you're probably just waiting for me to call this album boring and move on - but the truth is that I'm more disappointed by a series of compelling fragments that should feel like more than the sum of their parts. This is American Football's longest album to date with the fewest songs, and I can clearly tell there has been a progression - hell, there are potent ideas thematically and instrumentally where that time could have been well-used. But instead we get melodies that rarely progress compellingly and carry little texture, ideas and subtlety that reflect maturity and even deconstruction, but not wanting to challenge that cult audience that much to examine them more fully, even despite being given all the more time to do so - for as much as the house isn't on the cover in any way, this is not an album out of its shadow. And with that... yeah, I'm giving this a 6/10 and really just for the fans at this point. Again, it's not bad... but it really should be better.

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