After having spent the better part of the century on an indefinite hiatus, American Football has 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 would probably play in the background as the band drives away from their past, leaving old influences behind in the rearview.
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. Although I wouldn’t say LP3 is a complete departure from their old sound, it deals with far more aged themes like parenthood and adulthood. And while it still holds dear the rock elements of yore, it’s a complete anthesis to that first album that achieved the far-fetched goal of throwing together melodies haphazardly and letting them stick.
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 have changed more in these two years than they had in the 17 between LP1 and LP2. Nevertheless, this is who they’ve become, and we’re glad we got to see it.
Opener “Silhouettes”, a seven-minute long crooner who’s main melody is something of an elevator tune, sets the tone of the album, 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, driving home that signature sound so characteristic of the ‘90s: a summery, shoegaze-esque twang of guitars drenched in reverb. 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 capitalizes on that rootless, fledgling nostalgia they know you’re bound to feel when you put it on. And, 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 stunningly introspective song, “Uncomfortably Numb” deals with growing up, coming to terms with childhood regrets, and realizing that the rose-colored glasses of youthful naïveté always made things seem better than they were. And “Heir Apparent”, it’s genre-blending sibling, sits squarely between Turnover’s shimmery indie-rock and DIIV’s blissy guitar-gaze, striking a healthy compromise between vocals and melody with the choir of children singing sweetly in the background.
There is no denying this is entirely new territory for American Football. LP3 does well — it’s a warm and gentle midtempo album that sounds like it may have been relatively easy to get right — but ultimately, it was the time to think, the years spent watching from the sidelines, the veteran knowledge of what worked the first time and what didn’t, that turned this album into a risky, triumphant reinvention. This does feel like ‘take two’ of sorts for LP1, but one improved by the musical 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 lengthiest songs start to blend together a little too much. This is much more electronic-based, and the production more one-dimensional; it doesn’t have that raw, gritty flavor that comes naturally with music recorded live— that which practically made their first album and spilled a little over to the second. But the album is still carried by those rock elements they’re so committed to keeping, squashing all beliefs that AF has leaned too far in the wrong direction. While the varied instrumentation that made them famous on LP1 (trumpet, saxophone), has all but vanished, the soothing sound of the glockenspiel takes its place, an incredibly unique choice for a rock song that alone can be a metaphor for the evolution of American Football.
“Despite its shortcomings, the band certainly pulled this one off; beautiful instrumentation, clean production, and smooth lyrics make this a successful reinvention, one probably years in the making for American Football.”
Having gotten their comeback album LP2 (a second debut of sorts) out of way, it seems American Football were much less daunted and much more ambitious, 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.
“The goal [of this album] is to be conversational, maybe to state something giant and heavy, but in a very plain way,” frontman Mike Kinsella says about the album. 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 its shortcomings, he and his bandmates certainly pulled this one off; beautiful instrumentation, clean production, and smooth lyrics make this a successful reinvention, one probably years in the making.