Coming off the back of reunion so hyped and so unexpected, American Football’s 2016 comeback record fell a little flat. Largely reliant on the sentiments and sonics associated with frontman Mike Kinsella’s solo project Owen, it failed to push any boundaries in the same way as its 17-year-old predecessor. The hype and hysteria of those early reunion shows long-since faded, it was evidence that, perhaps, it’s better to stick to the nostalgia circuit than tarnish a legacy.
“Oh, the muscle memories / Continue to haunt me,” Kinsella sings on the opener to their third self-titled LP. As ever, it’s a nod to lost love, though it could be self-referential in the extreme – touching on those over-familiar patterns that dogged their last record. Thankfully, such through-the-motions moves are all but absent on the 2019 ‘American Football’. For those expecting a little more from the emo pioneers’ eagerly awaited comeback, third time’s a charm.
‘Silhouettes’, that aforementioned opener, is a chime-led, seven-minute wonder, never outstaying its welcome as the track blooms from delicate twinkling to full-on Aurora Borealis. It’s also the first of two lengthy tracks on ‘American Football’, dwarfed by ‘Doom in Full Bloom’’s near eight-minute duration. Both showcase a sense of dynamics and development that largely evaded the 2016 ‘American Football’, taking the jazzy, experimental inflections of their earliest work and exploring new territories.
Notably, for the first time, Kinsella’s voice comes backed by an array of more feminine vocals. ‘Every Wave to Ever Rise’ features Land Of Talk’s Elizabeth Powell, while Rachel Godwell of shoegaze icons Slowdive adds a ghostly air to the driving ‘I Can’t Feel You’. Both thrive under the direction of American Football’s new, as the group push into the avant-garde, the addition of such vocal talents helps develop American Football’s already exploratory new guise.
Most headline-grabbing of all is ‘Uncomfortably Numb’, a clumsy, titular play-on-words, largely forgivable for the inclusion of Paramore’s Hayley Williams on co-vocal duties. The pair exchange wearied stories of ageing and accountability, Williams’ vocal imitating the patterns of Kinsella’s melodies to give a new life to both parties. It’s arguably American Football’s best song since emo anthem ‘Never Meant’ – and given old-school emo’s long-storied, worrying lack of female agency, it’s also a vital addition of voices otherwise unheard in the genre.
Twenty long years since that iconic debut album, American Football are a band revitalised. As emo’s edges continue to fray, nestling amongst hip-hop and electronica in the popular consciousness, American Football remain the band best-versed in its traditional sensibilities. Unafraid to experiment amongst all the traditionalist, lovelorn expression, the ‘American Football’ of 2019 is a record both classic in intonation, and future-facing in intent. No longer a band of nostalgia bangers, American Football are back at the top of the pile.