American Football LP2 Track by Track
Written by Reid Smith on October 21, 2016
Scribed by Evan Harms
American Football’s first album, American Football, has become the epitome of midwestern indie rock over the last 10 to 15 years. The widely-revered record combines layers of suspended guitar with jazz-tinted trumpet melodies against a backdrop of forlorn wistfulness and post-adolescent emotivity.
After the band’s brief and relatively small existence centered in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, frontman Mike Kinsella began making music as Owen, starting musically and thematically where American Football left off. Though it lacks some of the musical intricacies of American Football, the Owen catalog could easily pass as the former. Which is why it’s so weird that people are exploding with enjoyment at the fact that the new American Football is the band’s first new material since 1999. Many of these fans would have likely enjoyed Owen material a great deal, had they actually chosen to majorly invest themselves in related music.
This means that American Football has great power as a band, as a brand and as an abstract ideal of what emotional music should be.
Sure, it’s new material, but Kinsella and co. are practically begging for comparisons to be drawn. Both records are the same length, same number of tracks, feature same house on the album cover, feature the same members and even use the same font (Imago, for you typeface nerds). That being said, It’s not yet clear if their second full length will resonate the same way their first LP will. Right now, it can be streamed in full on NPR and will be officially released via Polyvinyl Records on Friday, Oct. 21.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
1.Where Are We Now
If the listener hadn’t familiarized himself with the three singles the band had put out before the entire stream and release of the record, this would be the first taste of new material in 17 years. The iconic twinkly harmonic guitar work gently forms a podium for vocalist Mike Kinsella to ask the question that all fans are dying to know, “Where are we now?”
The lyrics follow an extended comparison of an actual house to a relationship as the rest of the band drops in, feeling just as whimsical and emotional as the first record. “We’ve been here before” laments Kinsella. Thanks to the jazzy intricacy of drummer Steve Lamos, the track whirrs and clicks to a gentle end.
2. My Instincts Are The Enemy
Comparably quicker than the majority of the record, this track features the iconic slippery sort of guitar work and astonishing vocal harmonies, especially on the chorus sections.
Still dwelling on emotional dependency, Kinsella’s relatively nonsensical lyrics hover over a firm yet fluid bass line by his younger brother, Nate. The song breaks down into scherzic syncopated suspension as Nate continues to play with time and spacing of his part while the rest of the band creates the classic twinkling atmosphere – introducing a diverse yet harmonious cohabitation of time signatures. Eventually, the guitar and glockenspiel (!) wink in a unison pattern of four beats over the threes and sixes that the rest of the band vibes in.
For me, this is the most mature-sounding and well-constructed song, making it easily one of the most memorable on the album.
3. Home Is Where The Haunt Is
A soft and sweet arpeggiated acoustic guitar and flute-like duet introduce what one might call a gently swaggering exploration of how the past can follow you, manifested in places you’ve loved.
Incredible lines like “Home is where the haunt is / The past still present tense” and “The ghost in the corner of the room / Knows how you’re feeling / ‘Cause you’re dead to him, too” effectively sum up the feelings one has for places and memories that they’ve tried so hard to forget, especially when stimulated by a physical object or location.
Obviously, the symbolic home motif is major in this song, but rather than glorifying the band’s peak in their college years (and that iconic house on both album covers), this song looks upon the past somewhat bitterly, maybe even guiltily.
The song remains flat and anticlimactic musically but features some intriguing glockenspiel work that adds a listenable dimension that prevents the listener from figuratively dying of boredom.
4. Born To Lose
This track comes off as one-dimensional lyrically, even as the sulking hemiolic groove is punctuated with airy vibraphone, flexible bass lines and pristine vocal harmonies.
Narratively, Kinsella is just commenting on how someone he cares about is trapped in a “born to lose” situation, stuck in “vulgarity” and dirtiness, often comparing the subject to an animal. I suppose these lyrics are an homage to the more obscure nature of the first record’s lyrics, but they leave the listener appreciating the instrumental work and overall atmosphere more than any sort of narrative – which is, in fact, fine and good, though it seems Kinsella might have been trying to be overly cryptic in his lyrics.
5. I’ve Been So Lost For So Long
From the get-go, we have that sappy vocal cadence that slides down a half step with the word “lost” – though this time it’s not drawn out. Briskly prodded by a buried shaker sound and a steady kick drum, the track borders on peppy soft rock. Though it is flavored with odd-metered drumming and other American Football stylistic staples, the song feels unique, upbeat and fresh.
The lyrical content actually contrasts this feeling – Kinsella lays out his depression straight. Obviously the title points to this, but heart-wrenching lines like the choruses “If you find me / Could you please remind me / Why I woke up today?” and “If you find me / could you please remind me / Why I should wake up tomorrow?” tend to emphasize the hopelessness Kinsella spouts on about so well and is the very essence of what American Football represents.
This track also contains potentially the most memorable lyrics of the entire record, heard in the second verse: “Doctor, it hurts when I exist.” Though it borders on normcore meme language, it straightforwardly emphasizes the hurt that has followed Kinsella well into his adult years.
6. Give Me The Gun
This one seems to be pretty transparently about suicide. I won’t quote any lyrics right here, but at some point, Kinsella refers to delicacy – delicacy of the mind when someone is struggling with mental illness. I don’t think he’s doing anything overtly romanticizing mental illness, instead discussing the ugly realities that come “when you’re left alone.”
Musically, this ranks among the best on the record. Finally! We have some jazziness. Luscious vibraphone accents complement Lamos’ and Kinsella’s dialed-in rhythm section. Lamos’ especially shines through on this track – I’m assuming he’s playing vibes on this – as his drumming emphasizes a bizarre off-time clacking noise. At first listen, I thought it was someone slamming things in my dorm, but it’s actually some sort of rim shot technique that works so well as a tricky little textural element.
7. I Need A Drink (or Two or Three)
WHY DID IT TAKE HALF AN HOUR TO GET THE FIRST TEASE OF TRUMPET.
And folks, it’s such a tease. Unlike the indulgent soloistic pieces that Lamos unleashed on the first record, this track uses a chorus of trumpets (boo) as a brief intro and also as an amazing little earworm harmony over the whole song.
A lilting waltz-like piece, I would consider this the most “Owen” piece on this album. Like much of the Owen catalog, Kinsella slips into the pathetic self-pity of middle age, rather than those “teenage feelings”: “Oh, how I wish that were me / The man that you first met and married.”
It goes on with that AMAZING buried horn sound into a resolution that is almost directly ripped off the cadence of any late-era Beatles song, all the while meandering guitar melodies dance with syncopated drum set.
8. Desire Gets In The Way
Again, what’s with holding all the great material for the lattermost third of the record?
This song pulsates and screams with energy as Kinsella borders on yelling on keywords (desire, fire, burns). After the legitimately youthful introduction, Kinsella and guitarist Steve Holmes play a simple sequence of tick-tocking guitar chords that drop out right before Kinsella becomes an elderly stooge once again: “For you, I’ll remain / Chained to the bed we made / But I get to choose the lingerie.” What a bizarre horny old man thing to say, right? But at the same time, it’s kind of sweet. Having not been old yet, it’s hard to comment definitively, but since the whole premise of this record revolves around nostalgic value, I’ll allow it.
9. Everyone Is Dressed Up
The final track of the album is actually a profoundly beautiful sweepy ballad reminding the listener that “Our love will surely be forgotten by history and scholars / Forever lost in time’s currents.” Think about that one for a second – the whole success and mythos of American Football revolves around romanticizing post-adolescent relationships. It appears in his middle years, Kinsella has realized that his love, though forgettable, is still important.
Anyhow, this song is a musical triumph. The trumpet solos that I’ve been longing for – nay, lusting for – fill an unknown void, offering that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. The song laps and crashes and sweeps and condenses and leaves the listener on an acapella vocal before fading into nothingness.
It sounds like falling asleep.
While it would lack artistic integrity to revamp the first album, American Football incorporates memorable facets of the old on the new. No, it doesn’t encapsulate that post-teen wistfulness (although at times Kinsella does try, in a very cringy way) but it does continue that narrative to full-fledged adulthood.
Of course, this album will never be as good as the original – there’s too much emotional and personal significance attached to the first LP for the vast majority of people. While this album is certainly enjoyable, and occasionally memorable, there’s no way it can realistically be compared, despite blatant similarities.
American Football (2016) will be on my regular fall listening list – but I won’t feel it in my gut the same way as American Football (1999).
I’ll check back in 17 years to see if anything has changed.
Notable Tracks: My Instincts Are The Enemy, I’ve Been So Lost For So Long, Desire Gets In The Way, Everyone Is Dressed Up