Seventeen years is a long time to wait for new music from a band you love. Fortunately, none of us (not even the band) knew we were waiting that long. In 2014 American Football reunited, after putting out 12 of the most enduring tracks of my college years.
In some ways the success or failure of this album was much like this year’s Vice Presidential debate: the players really just had to show up and not seriously mess things up.
The album begins with the fading in of one, then two, then three interlocking guitar parts. Mike Kinsella’s, “Where are we now?” invites the listeners to consider their place in life since the last American Football record. “Both home alone… in the same house” shows the movement of the yearning-for-love teenage emo kid to a now married but still yearning adult. The house on this album cover is the same as that on their first full-length record. This time, though, as the cover suggests, listeners get a closer look at what’s going on inside: “Would you even know, babe, if I wasn’t home… if I wasn’t afraid to say what I mean?”
As the full band enters into this powerful opening waltz, the lyrics go on, “We’ve been here before.” Or as a Chinese proverb I recently discovered puts it, “Fallen leaves return to their roots.” These guys are back to their roots of making smart, intricate, and gorgeous music. But the vocals are stronger (and mixed louder), there is a bass now, the guitar tones are more varied, the drumming is just about perfect, and the production is what you’d expect if these guys had made major label status.
There’s a sense in which LP2 sounds exactly as I hoped it would—but couldn’t have possibly imagined. The second track’s familiar arpeggios, string bends, polyrhythms, and harmonics could have just as easily appeared on the first record. But I don’t think even a die-hard American Football fan could have seen the pummeling drum and bass intro of “Give Me the Gun” coming. That rhythm section, that never existed in the band’s first bass-less incarnation, makes this album more than just an old band making a new record.
To pre-empt those who will bemoan how much this record “sounds like Owen” (especially with the acoustic guitar intro of “Home is Where the Haunt Is”), I offer three thoughts.
- Mike Kinsella is one, undivided person, so for his work on other projects (Owen) not to influence this band (American Football) would be impossible.
- Steve Holmes’s guitar work (not to mention Lamos and cousin Kinsella on rhythm) fill out the songs in a way that set it apart from just about anything Owen–even with full band–has created.
- Band members shared the songwriting process, trading off who offered the first seed of any given song.
There is, however, one unfortunate carry-over from Owen to American Football: a few raunchy lyrics that don’t find a place amid the transcendent beauty of the music this band creates. It’s not singing about sex I’m opposed to, but I cringe at lyrics like: “Dead eyes, and a mouth that can’t be clean / I can only imagine where that dirty mouth is / It’s not on me.” And, “I’m down for whatever / the uglier the better.”
So maybe Kinsella is speaking to himself when he sings later, “Why such vulgarity?” Or is it his interlocutor? I’ve had the same question since the second record Owen released. It’s a real mismatch with the gorgeousness of the music throughout the record, and something that was never in play with American Football. Kinsella does better with lines like, “Oh, how I wish that I were me / the man that you first met and married.”
The final track, “Everyone is Dressed Up,” is as much an instant classic as the album’s first song. The 6/8 time signature and return of Steve Lamos’s trumpet are a fitting end to this album, as are the poignant lyrics, “Our love will surely be forgotten by history and scholars alike.” The song is marred only by the final line of, “Everybody knows that the best way to describe the ocean to a blind man / is to push him in,” which, besides being unnecessarily demeaning (what is this, Donald Trump’s Twitter feed?), sounds like it might have been the final pre-deadline lyric of the album. The final track and album needed a more convincing ending, worthy of all the goodness that preceded it.
The nine tracks (the same number as the first LP) clock in at 37 minutes. After about five listens I found myself already wanting LP3! I hope the band stays together. They’re as in sync as ever, and the addition of Nate Kinsella’s bass rarely feels out of place, with the drumming of Steve Lamos being better than ever. Mike Kinsella and Steve Holmes might be my favorite pairing of guitarists, too—they haven’t missed a beat.
Get started on this album as soon as you can: the trifecta of the first three tracks are pure bliss. Despite a few shortcomings, LP2 was worth the wait.
American Football’s LP2 releases this Friday, October 21.
Thanks to the powers-that-be for the advance release download of this fine album, so I could write a review.