After having spent the better part of the century on an indefinite hiatus, American Football have been an incredible comeback story. And last Friday, March 22nd, they released their junior album — which, stressfully enough, is also self-titled like the first two — just in time for their debut release to turn 20. LP3 is a beautiful, instrumentally-driven endeavor that I imagine would play in the background as the band drives away from their past, leaving old influences behind.
Whereas the formula for 2016’s comeback LP2 was short-loud-a little less loud, LP3 showcases a different side entirely, with quiet-quiet-random synths and a bevy of new instruments we’ve never heard from them before. We wouldn’t say LP3 is a complete departure from their old sound, and still holds dear the rock elements past, but it deals with far more age-appropriate themes like parenthood and adulthood. It’s a complete anthesis to that first album (that achieved the far-fetched goal of throwing together melodies haphazardly and letting them stick), with much diluted subject matter. LP1 was pretty iconic, to say the least — it was Mogwai’s Rock Action before Mogwai’s Rock Action was Mogwai’s Rock Action — and advertises itself upon that gritty, teenage angst that prevents it from aging out. It allowed American Football to solidify their place in the emo scene, while perfectly capturing the essence of the ‘90s teenaged rock band, whatever that had meant back then. LP2 did this as well— and you can hear hints of “Never Meant” (LP1) in “My Instincts Are The Enemy”. But now, LP3 takes the band in a completely new direction, swapping relatable, angsty crooning with ethereal, retrospective (but still vague) lyrics. It’s hard to attribute this shift to any one thing — maybe this is what they’d wanted to do all along, or maybe it’s just that frontman Mike Kinsella and his three bandmates — Steve Holmes, Nate Kinsella, and Steve Lamos — have changed more in these two years than they had in the 17 between LP1 and LP2, but regardless this is who they’ve become.
Opener “Silhouettes”, a 7-minute long crooner who’s main melody is something of an elevator tune, sets the tone of the album, as it’s a striking a healthy compromise between vocals and melody, and leaving the instrumentals to drive the lion’s share of the song. “Doom in Full Bloom” and “Life Support” are two standout peas in a pod, bringing, more than any of the others, that signature sound so characteristic of the ‘90s: that summery, shoegaze-esque twang that the guitars had to them. It’s hard to say whether that’s a plus here — the market has been so saturated with so-called ‘90s influenced-xyzs that comparing anything to the 90’s doesn’t hold much weight — but it certainly draws upon that rootless, fledgling nostalgia they know you’re bound to feel the minute you put it on, and capitalizes quite a bit here. In the same vein, whether or not the title (and lyrics) of “Uncomfortably Numb” is an intentional nod to Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” the song does channel said nostalgia, bringing in Paramore’s Hayley Williams to assist. A pretty introspective song, it deals with growing up, coming to terms with youthhood regrets, and realizing that the rose-colored glasses of childhood naïveté had always made things seem better than they were. And “Heir Apparent”, the genre-blending child of the family, sits squarely between Turnover’s shimmery indie-rock and DIIV’s blissy guitar-gaze, and the choir of children singing sweetly in the background adds a varied touch.
Upon a second listen, there is no denying for a second that this is not something American Football would have done in the past, not even two years ago. LP3 does well — it’s a warm and gentle midtempo album that feels like it was relatively easy to get right — but ultimately, it was the time to think, the years of watching from the sidelines, the knowing of what worked the first time around and what didn’t, that turned this album into a risky, but triumphant reinvention. American Football is lucky in that they have had a second go at all this, and have had the chance to come back stronger than ever. In some ways, this does feel like Take 2 of their debut LP1, improved only by the maturity and capability that could only come with the years. It definitely has the potential to fall flat in certain areas — but let’s face it, so did LP1 — and by track six, a continuous listen will have the very lengthy songs starting to blend together a little too much.
Nevertheless, even with the shift in sound, the album is still carried by those rock elements they’re so committed to keeping, which puts them eons above the bands that started out like this. While the varied instrumentation, the most unique emo at the time that made them famous on LP1 (trumpet, saxophone) is gone, You can still hear old elements of it throughout LP3. And what’s taken away is smartly replaced with soothing ambient sounds from the glockenspiel and that alone can be a metaphor for the evolution of American Football.
Having gotten their comeback album LP2 (a second debut of sorts) out of way, it seems American Football were much less afraid and much more ambitious this time around, unafraid of producing an album that explored their wildest melodic desires. Knowing LP2 would be subject to quite the scrutiny — after all, it had been 17 years — it is likely they were demure, careful, reluctant to show us what they’d really been working on, until now. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of this is stuff they’ve been sitting on for a while, deeming it unsuitable for their comeback release. I’ll admit, such a degree of caution would be unnecessary; it’s not as if this album is some drastically different foray into, say, metal, but it definitely shows that the band has changed. This is much more electronic-based, and the production more smooth; it doesn’t have that raw, gritty flavor that comes naturally with music played only on instruments — that flavor that was on their first album and spilled a little over to the second. Some beats did end up feeling a pretty heavily computer-generated and at times a little too smooth and “plain”. Not exactly something you’d want to come back with, but for LP3, it somehow feels like it can be forgiven.
As far-fetched as it seems, these criticisms actually fall quite squarely in line with what frontman Mike Kinsella had to say about the album. “The goal [of this album] is to be conversational, maybe to state something giant and heavy, but in a very plain way. But, definitely in this record, I keep things a little more vague. As on the first album, the lyrics on LP3 may seem confessional and concentrated, but the more you scrutinize them, the further their meaning slinks away.” Despite it’s shortcomings, he and his bandmates certainly pulled this one off; beautiful instrumentation, clean production, and smooth lyrics make this a successful reinvention, one that was probably years in the making for American Football.