Album Review: American Football - LP2

Album Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra

“Everyone is dressed up, everyone to the nines”, Mike Kinsella whispers on the album’s closing track, “Someone must have found love or someone must have died”. That sentence - perhaps better than any other on the record - embodies the perfect mixture of awareness and distance that has haunted American Football throughout their unorthodox career. It’s unorthodox, in essence, because American Football exist in a much stranger sense than the traditional careerist band. Their seminal album was a milestone in the emo rock movement, and yet, they never really set out to make it as such. It was such a simple thing - just a side project of a few friends where they could mess around with Wurlitzers and tambourines and trumpets. And yet, with years and years to grow, the impact of American Football's eponymous debut seems to only be felt more with time. The band recognized and celebrated this late blooming in raucous form with a worldwide tour over the last two years, getting the band back on the road to play a batch of songs almost two decades old to audiences that never got a chance to hear them live. Then, in the natural course of things, as friends from different walks of life get back together in the same room to practice those old favorites, new melodies begin to churn. And now, here we have it: the next chapter in the American Football saga, eighteen years in the making. To the great relief and joy of every fan, American Football’s return is a triumphant one, well worth your time and money, and ready to shake you with another grand collection of melancholy wandering in the modern world. In the time since we last saw them, it’s just as Kinsella says - some found love, maybe some friends and family have passed on, and we just get to learn how to deal with it all.

Upon their return, American Football didn't try and hide the time between. The album’s first single, “I’ve Been Lost For So Long”, seemed to be a perfect first word to fans - namely, “Sorry”. But with the full LP, they begin by asking the same question as their fans. “Where are we now?”. “We’ve been here before”, Mike sings, “but I don’t remember a lock on the door”. One glance at the cover, and you'll notice the simple metaphor of a house continues with LP2. It’s such an ordinary thing, and yet, a perfect picture for American Football’s simple but profound vision. In a lot of ways, the band use the suburban motif in ways similar to John Hughes - it’s the ultimate (albeit unspoken) aspiration for young Americans. It’s the baby boomer comfort of a sizable single family home with the potential to close the door around you, savoring a safe place to write, to play, to exist. If you remember anything from the John Hughes classics, it never quite works out that way for anyone, and yet, we have this idea for which we continue to push. American Football pushed for it on their first record, even in their youth, gaping at the checklist of requirements to qualify, recognizing the distance between their own idealism and the reality of communication and fulfillment. It’s a feeling that truly anyone can relate with, and is what makes their debut such a seminal effort.

Now well into adulthood, LP2 gives the band a chance to follow that thought with some additional consideration. To its credit, while American Football’s return brings the sound and the scope that every fan could want, their follow up album doesn’t try to recreate any of the quintessential moments of the first. After all, the band’s 1999 LP was truly a snapshot record. It feels exactly like you’d expect, given the jam-oriented, oft-improvised recording sessions that birthed it. The spirit of youth and potential is ripe throughout. When American Football toured the country for the first album’s anniversary a few years ago, the moment that everyone remembered was, of course, “Stay Home”, where endless riffing echoes like a wandering thought that ends so perfectly with the whisper in the back of everyone’s mind: “That’s life - it’s so, so short”. It’s a wonderful sentiment, and one that sounds particularly profound when you have only lived a quarter of your life. But it’s one that one that Mike and company are done describing - they live it enough every day. Nothing about LP2 feels like a jam or improv. Rather, these are mature, well-rounded songwriting efforts that give fans something so much more than reflection or revisitation. These are American Football songs for 2016, and ones that you’ll bond with and break with just as deeply as the first time around.

The only thing that seems to date American Football in the current day (or at the very least, anchor them to their early days) is the earnest nature of their songs. “Empathy takes energy” and other emo-isms might not seem out of place in their original context, but tunes like “Home Is Where The Haunt Is” and “Give Me The Gun” might raise the eyebrows of newer, present day listeners. With repeat listens, you start to realize that there’s no fault to be had here. In his lyrics, Mike offers up more of himself than 90% of modern songwriters, talking about very real topics in much more visceral and tangible ways than he did eighteen years ago. Midlife-crisis, functional alcoholism, middle-aged thoughts of suicide - these aren’t trendy or glamorized topics to make your return with. Rather, this new chapter feels incredibly honest, even to the point of making the listener blush. Where the debut is a dream journal of wishes and aspirations sung to the warm light of an upstairs bedroom, LP2 is a shadowy confessional. After remarking about the lock on the door on the first track, Mike asks, “Is it keeping me out or you in?” How often do we find ourselves questioning roadblocks in our lives in similar ways? And moreover, how often are we the roadblock?

Some of Mike’s youthful demons still plague him here. “My Instincts Are The Enemy” and “Desire Gets In The Way” both narrate the woes of communication over some of the best guitar work you’ll hear all year. I’m sure the irony of that juxtaposition is never lost on the band - honestly, who does better instrumental interplay than these guys, ever? The impossibly lush and endlessly groovy counterpoint continues on LP2 in numbers like these, and yet somehow gets packaged into these highly repeatable singles without ever feeling compressed. “Desire” is easily the best single on the album, giving American Football a new live standard with a pair of verses you can’t help but want to scream along with Mike on stage. It’s a self-deprecating but ultimately hopeful dissection of a relationship, where two people learn how to repaint a set of cracking walls. It’s this moment, after a collection of darker ones, where you see the bigger picture of American Football’s present day reality. Unlike the ominous woes of the first record looming on the horizon, the problems worth writing about on LP2 are daily struggles, simple and yet so constant. Each day, learning how to make a better reality through grace and love - desire might get in the way, but it doesn’t mean you want to leave.

And yet, we can’t help but feel the weight of mortality. “This will be forgotten to history and scholars alike”, Mike ruminates, thinking of all the possibilities he once pondered endlessly. All those summers ending with goodbyes and promises to reconvene, some of them kept and some broken - those things that meant so much in the moment now seem so distant. But it’s not a lack of importance that allows the moment to seem so fleeting - on the contrary, it’s likely that Mike finds more meaning in the present than he ever has. Instead, it’s the realization that there are so many shared ventures, so many small wonders, and so much to go around. As the song comes to a close, American Football do what they do best, and forsake description for experience. “Everybody knows that the best way to describe the ocean to a blind man is to push him in”, Kinsella sings. As the stream of guitar trickles onward, you see the album cover come to mind, with the white light of what’s to come blocking our vision. As we so often find ourselves blind to the future, we sometimes need to let all hesitation to the wind and take a headlong dive.

Last time around, we were on the outside of the house looking in, wondering what all there was about that warmth and brightness upstairs. This time, we’re on the inside, but the upstairs is nothing but shadow. The downstairs door is half cracked as we look out and wonder what kind of exposure we really want to have. Age has given American Football perspective, but thankfully for their fans, not necessarily some brilliant sense of nirvana. They continue to be a warm and welcoming partner in a lonely quest for connection, braving one winter at a time on the way to becoming better people together. That’s reason to get dressed up if there ever was one.

American Football’s second LP is out this week on Polyvinyl. Grab it at your local record store on CD or vinyl.

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