Everyone loves a good comeback story. Comebacks give inspiration and hope to people around the world, especially in the music industry. For such a cutthroat business that kicks out as many artists as it takes in, seeing acts comeback from failures or obscurity gets people excited. Even in the mopey and underappreciated subgenre of emo rock, interests are peaked when a band tries to jump back into the spotlight, let alone successfully. So here’s American Football, who made one of the most iconic albums of the genre only to go and breakup soon afterward. But their 1999 self-titled debut album left such a lasting impact on the genre and the sad kids that listened to it, the Illinois quartet decided to give the ol’ reunion a try thinking they’d only receive mild interest. Instead, they sold out shows all around the world and put out another record in 2016 (also self-titled, of course). But maybe that was just a one-off, a thank you to the fans for the longstanding support before riding off into the sunset.
Well here’s to motivational comebacks because American Football are not only back again, but better than ever. Their third self-titled album is also their longest at 47 minutes without a single song under the four-minute mark. Even with four of the eight tracks at five minutes and two of them at seven minutes, none of the songs overstay their welcome or feel empty at any point. The entire mood and sonic playbook of American Football (LP3) is set by the album opener “Silhouettes” with it’s minute-and-a-half of xylophone notes before soft guitar picking and lead singer Mike Kinsella’s haunting vocal delivery. Kinsella’s vocals are reminiscent of Bernard Sumner of New Order and Rivers Cuomo of Weezer with his understated yet extremely fragile singing on “Uncomfortably Numb” and “Heir Apparent.” When his vocals are double-tracked and given background harmonies on “I Can’t Feel You” and “Mine to Miss,” American Football almost turn gothic. The album officially declares Kisella’s vocals as American Football’s prime instrument but it doesn’t take away from the guitar interplay between him and Steve Holmes. The production has the cleanliness of the band’s last record, but songs sound fuller and titanic for simple stories about isolation and aging.
The vocals are still the focus here, especially given notable guest stars Hayley Williams of Paramore, Elizabeth Powell of Land of Talk and Rachel Goswell of Slowdive. The latter of the guests gets the least amount of time on record though Goswell adds a lush backing to “I Can’t Feel You,” whereas Powell gives an extra layer to the chorus of “Every Wave to Ever Rise.” Williams actually shares verses and gets her own solo on “Uncomfortably Numb” in the most mature performance of her career. Her low, clear delivery takes her out of her emo/alternative roots and into the singer-songwriter territory of Brandi Carlile.
Despite the gorgeous view on display on the album cover, American Football (LP3) focuses more on emptiness and struggle. Kinsella is good at taking an overwhelming struggle and making it apply to his small-scale life. “Uncomfortable Numb” pays homage to the chorus of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” but instead focuses on Kinsella’s relationship with his father and how history repeats itself (“I blamed my father in my youth/Now as a father, I blame the booze…I used to struggle in my youth/Now I’m used to struggling for two”). Kinsella feels like a burden to his significant other and even his children, as on “Heir Apparent” where he compares himself to “a child you can’t ignore” and calls himself “the king of all alone.” The album cover also shows great distance and the songs feature Kinsella distancing himself from people he loves through social anxiety. The crippling communication breakdown is heard on “I Can’t Feel You” (“Antagonist unknown (I can’t read you)/If every quarrel’s braced alone (I don’t believe you)/Is this communication?”). He doesn’t even have the good sense to end on a ray of hope as “Life Support” fades the album out with the sentiment that he‘s more used to disappointment than anything (“Disappointment and grief come easy/Forgiveness is a mystery”).
Despite still sitting in their eternal bummer, American Football sound more realized than ever before. American Football (LP3) is a major sonic leap for the band and affirms that they can exist in 2019 and beyond. Lyrically they’re covering the same topics but at least it can still apply to adults as much as twenty-somethings. At the very least, the world knows that American Football was not a fluke and actually had more to say.