Make an album that affects the very being of the people that hear it. Then split up. Adorn that album with a cover image that seems throwaway at first, yet possesses a strange and mysterious charm. Have a hand in creating a genre. Inspire multiple bands to crib your style but never successfully recreate it.
These are some good pointers if you fancy having a stab at becoming a cult band. Very few bands, if any, actually set out to do exactly that, but it’s a template of sorts. American Football’s story is similar to that of Slint to a degree, and over the years both band’s mystique and importance grew uncontrollably in their absence.
Slint of course made a comeback some years ago and their masterpiece, Spiderland, was celebrated in live shows and as an all-encompassing box set. As yet there’s been no sign of any new material from Slint with the exception of a single song played in a live context. American Football also reformed for a few retrospective shows and a re-issue of their debut back in 2014, but in releasing an album of brand new material, 17 years after their debut, they’ve taken a step that Slint have yet to do.
The slow fade in to opening track Where Are We Now? the interior shot of the house that adorned their first album and the fact they’ve named this album the same as their debut are all clues about what to expect. This a band picking up from where they left off and the silence has finally been broken not with a bang, but with a the band’s trademark intertwined guitar lines emerging from the void.
At least, that’s how it seems initially, but it’s been 17 years since the members of American Football were an accidental college band that split when their courses ended to continue their lives in different cities. As might be expected, the band has considerably more life experience than they did when they wrote their first album and that resonates throughout their second. The result is an album that perhaps has more of a right to call itself emo than its predecessor. With experience and age come greater levels of understanding, disappointment and heartbreak (unless you’re very lucky) and those aspects are all over this record.
American Football might have been an emo band, but they were always understated musically. Not for them sudden bursts of bombast or thick layers of dark eyeliner. Instead they kept things quiet and elegant preferring to allow the delicate guitar lines, smart drumming and almost conversational vocals do the trick. Initially this approach appears to make for a very flat sounding album as there are very little in the way of sharp corners or changes in pace and volume. To really appreciate American Football, you have to step inside that glowing house that adorned the cover of their first album and immerse yourself in their world.
The contents of that house are now a little different. These days it is apparently populated by a couple whose relationship is faltering. “Both home alone in the same house” is how Mike Kinsella puts it, before describing changed locks and faces, and the disintegration of love and life. Everything you need to know about the themes of the album is wrapped up its first track.
Whilst this album is a lot more consistent tonally and musically than the first, it’s lyrical content makes it a more emotional affair, but perhaps that’s just depends on what you bring to it as a listener. In American Football’s world now, emotional bonds are like chains (My Instincts Are The Enemy) to be rattled by the ghosts of the love felt in the first few months of a relationship. “The ghost in the corner of the room knows how you’re feeling, cos you’re dead to him” states Kinsella on Home Is Where The Haunt is offering a damning statement on the status of a relationship. Yet there’s remenants of the ties that bind here too: “I need a drink or two, or three, to fall asleep without you” he croons later on before examining his own life and his regrets. As far as killer lines go “Oh how I wish you were me, the man you first met and married” hits hard. Although “remind me why I should wake up tomorrow” from I’ve Been So Lost For So Long runs a close second.
If all this sounds a bit like a bunch of middle aged men retreating to teenage poetry just as mid-life crisis kicks in, fear not. It could be worse after all; they’ve not bought motorbikes and got ill-advised tattoos (as far as we know). Whilst these songs tackle some truly heartbreaking subjects, American Football’s saving grace is in the elegance and beauty of the interwoven guitar lines of Kinsella and Steve Holmes. The way they play off of each other is absolutely sublime at times. Give Me The Gun is a perfect example of their intricacies paying off and drummer Steve Lamos’ unusual approach to rhythm, but it’s the phenomenally executed close to Born To Lose that really impresses. They can occasionally do jaunty too as on the introduction to Desire Gets In The Way, which is much needed shot in the arm, but really their strengths lie in the apparently psychic bond of Kinsella and Holmes.
Beautiful, sad, uplifting, and thoughtful, American Football’s return is definitely something to get excited about, but in a subdued way. Naturally. Most importantly, the step of recording a set of new material hasn’t resulted in them destroying their legacy. Where they go from here is anyone’s guess, but they could probably do with getting out of the house for a bit.