It feels strange to have new music from American Football. Keep in mind that their last album, 2016’s second self-titled effort, came after a seventeen-year-long gap, so to see that shaved down to just three for this third album actually feels like a band looking to move past their own mythos of esoteric emo legends and strive to be an actual band again. Granted, that could’ve been gathered from that last album, which saw them take their emo and math-rock tendencies into more meandering territory than ever before, and thus result in an album that became so incredibly forgettable in next to no time. But in a genuinely surprising change of fate, there’s actually hope for American Football to deliver this time. For one, operating on a cycle that’s more traditional of bands today could be a potentially galvanising force in terms of their creative energy, and with singles that have been a lot stronger overall – not to mention a handful of collaborations in the tracklist that have curried some significant amounts of intrigue – it’s actually exciting to see what American Football can deliver on a new album, something that rarely could’ve been expected coming out of 2016.
Of course, that’s largely a relativistic use of the word ‘exciting’. At this point, American Football have so vehemently earned their stripes as a cult band that it feels rather naive to expect any sort of huge shifts or shakeups in formula beyond the contemplative, more mature emo that was especially led into on their comeback album. The fact that each of their three full-lengths have been self-titled factor heavily on that, but there existence within emo has become so talismanic that anything other than the expected could be seen as counterproductive, particularly to a fanbase that’s so heavily gravitated towards them over the years. With that being said, it’d be wrong to call LP3 a bad album – it definitely feels less directionless overall than its predecessor and does endeavour to take the band’s sound a few steps forward – but it represents a case of a band riding with the cult act mentality so staunchly that the entry points for those on the outside feel disappointingly limited.
And unfortunately, a lot of that is tied to the overall presentation. It’s definitely a good start that the spidery math-rock loose ends that rarely amounted to much previously have been pretty much swept aside this time, with the effort of de-cluttering amounting to a sound that’s much more heavily indebted to post-rock in its languidity and focus on atmosphere and emotional evocation. It can certainly be incredibly pretty as well, and in moments like the fluttering bells and chimes that open up Silhouettes or the return of the lonely trumpet feeding through Doom In Full Bloom, there’s a crafted sonic pensiveness that, with the generally extended track lengths, is given plenty of space to breathe and play around its smartly-designated negative space. Take a step back though, and apart from Nate Kinsella’s omnipresent basslines, there’s not much about LP3 that has great structure or form, and with a sense of emptiness to the production that makes the already-fragile guitars feel even more so and the percussion lack in a lot of motion, it once again feels like another album that simply runs together but with an added toothlessness and plodding dearth of presence. That toll can really be felt in the vocals too, and while Mike Kinsella has never displayed fantastic dynamism as a frontman in really any of his projects, the glassy hollowness combined with just a general shortage of opportunities to perform feels equally anonymous. The real shame is how this bleeds over to the guest vocalists; Paramore’s Hayley Williams definitely fares the best on Uncomfortably Numb with the vulnerability that comes through in her lower range (something that’s especially useful when the track itself isn’t a million miles away from Paramore’s slower material), but Land Of Talk’s Elizabeth Powell and Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell are relegated to backing vocals or accompaniments above anything else on Every Wave To Ever Rise and I Can’t Feel You respectively, and what could’ve been key sources of diversity end up slinking away just the same.
At least on the plus side, this sort of bare canvas means there’s little to worry about in terms of the writing getting blocked out, and to American Football’s credit, it’s where they’ve always shined and largely continue to do so. It’s Kinsella’s minimalism that does a lot of the work here, keeping any lyrics fairly sparse to present the sense of doubt and ennui that comes through here. It’s not the most detailled poetry, especially for emo in this vein, but it’s where the use of empty space once again finds its place in the equation, offering an unspoken mystery to the confrontation of infidelity on Silhouettes, the self-examination that comes from growing older on Uncomfortably Numb and Heir Apparent, and the emptiness and crushing nothingness of Life Support. In a way, it makes the bleak, barren course of the album make sense; emptiness governs its narrative progression with Kinsella’s elucidations coming in spurts of brief necessity, and in terms of how this is all presented, that’s almost a perfect microcosm of what this album has to offer.
It’s also exactly what one would expect from American Football at this point, not only in sonic decisions but in terms of a general game plan of how to get these ideas out there. After all, they’re a smart band, and this does feel like a genuine crystallisation of the ideas they had rather than an avoidable misstep. On the whole though, it doesn’t feel as though LP3 really delivers much from those ideas beyond the realisation that this is, indeed, what American Football wanted to do. It has moments that have a sense of beauty that really does connect well, but there’s otherwise not a lot that has that deeper impact, at least not the sort that American Football clearly wanted to deliver. Even then it’s an improvement simply by having more focus than its predecessor, but it’s still a bit disappointing, especially when this band remain as revered as they do and struggle to deliver material that can match.
For fans of: Mineral, The Promise Ring, The Appleseed Cast
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘American Football’ (LP3) by American Football is released on 22nd March on Big Scary Monsters.