Genre: Midwest Emo
Favorite Tracks: “Uncomfortably Numb,” “Heir Apparent,” “I Can’t Feel You”
For some reason, there seemed to be more concern surrounding the quality of American Football’s third eponymous release than there was around 2016’s LP2. After dropping lead single “Silhouettes” in December, revealing an album cover that did not feature the iconic house in Urbana, and a featuring a tracklist sprinkled with a few guest vocal appearances, naysayers of the internet prematurely began to post doubt-fueled comments like “What the hell are they doing with Hayley Williams” and “I’ll listen even though I know I’ll be disappointed because they aren’t true emo anymore.” And maybe American Football isn’t true emo anymore (though if you do some digging, you can find some purists willing to go war over the fact the midwest emo scene was never emo to begin with, but let’s not die on that hill right now), but LP3 IS different, and anyone who is let down by the fact that a group of 40-year-old dads are not making music like they are still disaffected teenagers has set themself up for any of the disappointment they may be feeling.
None of this is to say that we are dealing with a completely different band—American Football is always going to sound like American Football as long as it is centered around the beautifully intricate guitar stylings of Mike Kinsella and Steve Holmes, who are still one of the best guitar duos in the game today. The album opens with “Silhouettes,” which clocks in at a lengthy 7:22, starting off with light and haunting chime sounds before giving way to shimmering picked guitar lines over the tight, crisp drumming of Steve Lamos. The song progresses through slight variations, rhythm changes, and pauses in such a fluid way that the lengthy track never feels like it is dragging on at any point. This is true for the majority of the album, as most of the tracks break the five-minute mark, adding up to a total duration of 47 minutes across just eight songs. While the nine tracks on LP2 come off as self-contained vignettes aiming to check off certain boxes long-time American Football fans were expecting, LP3’s songs seem more cohesive and mature with room for reflection.
The album then proceeds with a pair of featured guest vocals from Land of Talk’s Elizabeth Powell and Paramore’s Hayley Williams, respectfully. Powell’s contributions are tastefully utilized, with plenty of reverb in the choruses of “Every Wave To Ever Rise,” before a key and riff change bring back Kinsella to wrap it up. Williams, on the other hand, is given more time in the spotlight on “Uncomfortably Numb,” engaging in a call-and-response with Kinsella as he solemnly reflects on the end of a relationship caused by issues with alcohol. “Uncomfortably Numb” is a prime example of American Football’s lyrical maturation; on LP2’s “I Need a Drink (or Two or Three)” the need for alcohol and the destruction and regret that can accompany it are openly acknowledged, but the blame is placed on outside forces conspiring against him. Two years later, it sounds like Kinsella still has a complicated relationship with alcohol, but has become more honest about the underlying factors: “I blamed my father in my youth / now as a father, I blame the booze.” The sense of pain and heartbreak that made American Football relatable to so many fans in 1999 is still present, but with an added honesty and acceptance that can only develop with age.
Standout track “Heir Apparent” starts off around a delay-laden lead, and slowly incorporates simple and sparse synths and keys. The chorus is lighter and brighter musically, while Kinsella sincerely assures us that he is not sorry that he is sorry. The song builds to an outro of a child’s choir repeating the phrase “Heir apparent to the throne / the king of all alone,” a line that’s sure to find its way onto the skin of more than a handful of fans. “Doom in Full Bloom” satisfies the horn requirement for every American Football release; the longest track on the album, it ebbs and flows, dropping guitars completely at one point, losing the drums at another, and swelling with just the slightest distortion before coming to its final rest. These slight change-ups keep the track from growing stale over the course of its almost-eight minutes. The rhythm section of Kinsella and Lamos are the stars on “I Can’t Feel You”; Kinsella’s pulsing bass rides well alongside a relentless, driving beat. Rachel Goswell’s vocal contributions are sparse, but crucial to the haunting vibes of the track. As one of the shorter and faster songs on the record, it is one of the few moments that catches you off-guard when it ends—it absolutely does not need anything else, but you would not say no to more of it.
American Football’s third LP is definitely a progression for the group, but also retains a lot the elements that made them so beloved from their genesis. However, it is different, and as always, some people will feel let down with the changes that are taking place. While LP2 carried the pressure of a 17-year gap that demanded that certain elements of the group’s trademark characteristics be phoned-in, LP3 is obviously less concerned with them, proudly showcasing a sense of maturity and acceptance that seems natural at this point in the band members’ lives. The Urbana house that has come to mean so much to so many people may no longer be the visual focal point for the band on this release, but the influence and power it holds over the band still manifests itself in the music.