Illinois quartet American Football may have broken up right after releasing its 1999 self-titled debut, but that album’s intricate guitar work, revolving time signatures and folksy singing pervaded beyond the band itself. The sound defined Midwest emo and profoundly influenced the “emo revival” over a decade later. Such was the band’s unique chemistry, that 2016’s comeback could dial back the math-rock element and still pass as a decent indie-rock album. After a safe, if boring return, American Football ventures beyond with a third self-titled LP. American Football (LP3) reimagines a timeless sound without losing what made it indispensable 20 years ago.
Where LP2 hinted at experimentation, a euphoric sheet of glockenspiel, vibraphone and flute notes lead LP3’s “Silhouettes” from the Urbana homestead to explore the artwork’s twilight meadow. The lead single’s ornate instrumentation, dreamy singing and glacial ambiance build on American Football’s shoegaze side, carrying hypnotic guitar licks and odd phrase lengths and into uncharted territory.
Tying it all together is some of the best soft rock production of the decade. Steve Lamos’ fat, yet warm drums interlock with Nate Kinsella’s full bass and resonant mallet percussion, supporting Mike Kinsella’s refined voice. He and Steve Holmes’ synchronic guitar playing explore new ambient depths, still sporting a bounty of melodic ideas. It’s the first step into a treasure trove of pleasant surprises.
After catching everyone’s eye with its Hayley Williams feature, “Uncomfortably Numb” proves far greater than a duet. Impossibly relatable deadpan lyricism weaves into Williams’ and Mike Kinsella’s spellbinding delivery, trading lines and even singing over each other. A plucky guitar motif makes the track’s instrumentals especially accessible, leaving room for vocals to take the forefront. The opposite is true on “Every Wave To Ever Rise.” Land of Talk’s Elizabeth Powell takes a more supplementary role, but a wonderful maze of reverberant vibraphone, acoustic and electric guitar more than makes up for it. The song’s addictive drum and bass groove allows entry for a variety of textures and complex melodies.
The ghostly voice of Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell was the appropriate addition for “I Can’t Feel You.” The song takes a dream-pop form with fuzzed-out guitar and spiritual vocal drones, emphasizing LP3‘s use of a fuller sound palette to fill larger spaces. “Heir Apparent” encapsulates this sentiment with utopian flute, piano and even angelic choral singing. American Football’s rhythmic sensibilities remain steadfast within spiraling textures, as does Kinsella’s lackadaisical nihilism. “Unapologetically sorry for everything,” he unabashedly acknowledges his fault in the end of a past relationship.
By the time the staple of Lamos’ trumpet appears on “Doom In Full Bloom,” American Football has more than proven its reinvention. The song’s modulating vocal harmonies hang in the air like morning mist, showing how far the band have come as vocalists. The guitars and drums are closer to classic Midwest emo, but the majestic chorus and the evolving three-minute jam remain firmly founded in atmosphere. Mike Kinsella and Holmes’s counterpoint melodies flow more like ripples than the rapid rain drops of LP1—all the while supported by that signature rhythm section.
“Mine To Miss” effortlessly assimilates the album’s new elements into classic American Football, deepening the band’s evolving ambience while strengthening a truly beautiful chorus. The arrangements maintain the complexity of old, but in service of lush soundscapes instead of a barrage of ideas. Closing track “Life Support” effectively lands this approach in placid bliss. Centered on Lamos’ meticulous five-count beat, its ingeniously layered guitars and vocal harmonies commingle with mallet percussion to a game-changing effect. LP3 successfully breaks American Football outside its box, becoming a full-on sonic migration.
The only problem LP3 presents is whether it usurps LP1 as the best American Football album. The watershed innovation and lasting impact of the debut speaks for itself, but it’s hard to conceive a better way for LP3 to cast off the shackles of nostalgia and reinstate this band as a standard setter for the emo movement.