A few stray guitar notes, some studio chatter, a drummer trying out some fills—these inauspicious sounds begin American Football’s classic self-titled debut from 1999, a landmark album that spawned countless emo bands that paled in comparison.
Those offhand noises gave way to “Never Meant,” an unassuming anthem of love gone quietly wrong. The first notes of the Illinois band’s second album (also self-titled) arrive with its predecessor’s subtle emotional pull, followed by guitarist-vocalist Mike Kinsella’s thin-but-heavy voice singing about familiar patterns: “We’ve been here before,” he intones. Though, he adds, “I don’t remember a lock on the door, for keeping me out or you in.” That song, “Where Are We Now?,” is about the dangers of nostalgia and memory, a fitting theme for fans who have waited 17 years—since last century!—for another batch of songs from Kinsella, guitarist Steve Holmes, and drummer Steve Lamos (and this time also bassist Nate Kinsella).
The new album has mostly been worth the wait. One of the charms of the band’s debut was an off-kilter, though precise, sense of rhythm. The result was the sonic equivalent of a beer-buzzed walk home, a quality that is only hinted at with the more comfortable sounds on the band’s follow-up. This American Football, for better or worse, is more sure-footed than its predecessor. “Where Are We Now?” is followed by “My Instincts Are The Enemy,” whose hushed guitars stop on a dime in true American Football fashion.
The few moments that don’t quite work, like the soggy “Born To Lose” or lines like “I’m as blue as the sky is gray,” sound like the watered-down bands that American Football influenced. Kinsella’s voice, once charmingly unsure and vulnerable, is now more confident and conventional. One of the record’s strengths, however, is arrangements that anticipate this listener fatigue: the punchy snares of “Give Me The Gun,” say, or the trumpets of record closer “Everyone Is Dressed Up.”
Comparing any band’s recent work to its long-ago debut is unfair. But American Football, a band whose gap between debut and follow-up is old enough to drive, is a special case. The intervening years have been kind to the group; its easy chemistry remains a dialogue full of endearing, if not ample, surprises.