When Illinois' American Football reunited for a run of shows in 2014/15, grown men wept. I should know, I was one of them. Standing in the crowd at one of their first ever UK gigs, it was difficult to imagine the band releasing a new album any time soon. After all, how could they possibly add to their paradoxically short-lived, yet long-lasting legacy? When bands make a genre-defining album, that's never their aim.
How do you follow up a masterpiece? This is the question that has plagued a select handful of artists throughout the ages, causing some to rush and flail into disappointment. Few have had the patience of American Football, the emo trailblazers from Champaign-Urbana, IL, who waited 17 years to follow up their eponymous debut. But as the twinkling guitars fade in at the new album’s outset, it’s as if that nearly two decade long break never happened.
The second eponymous American Football record is by no means a carbon-copy of the first, but the Illinois band seem to have done everything to pay homage to their now-seminal 1999 debut. Whether it's the album art that mimics the original, or both albums' nine-song, roughly 40-minute length, or the most obvious fact that they're both titled American Football, there have been a lot of hints that this would be a thoughtfully crafted comeback — which can be hard to come by. More astounding than the fact that a Midwestern emo band that existed for only three years — and found an adoring cult following only after splitting up — has now reunited to make only their second album almost two decades later is the fact that the music itself so closely captures the feeling of that first record across such an expanse of time.
Sometimes it can feel like cult bands reunite due to the power of fan-born hope. That could easily be the case for Illinois one-album-wonder American Football, who put out one self-titled EP and follow-up LP in 1999 and then went their separate ways. (Vocalist/bassist/guitarist Mike Kinsella eventually started a solo career as Owen, but also joined with his brother, Tim, in the equally elusory and brooding Owls.
Make an album that affects the very being of the people that hear it. Then split up. Adorn that album with a cover image that seems throwaway at first, yet possesses a strange and mysterious charm. Have a hand in creating a genre. Inspire multiple bands to crib your style but never successfully ….
Few bar a gaggle of devoted diehards noticed when American Football split up shortly after releasing their self-titled debut in 1999. In the years since, though, the album has proved a canonical text for anyone who was a fan of the wistful, technical sound of 90s emo, back before the genre was hijacked by the mascara-and-self-loathing crowd. Now the Illinois band are back with a follow-up that may as well come encased in amber, so redolent is it of that first work.
Since American Football broke up soon after the release of their self-titled 1999 album, it felt like their one and only release was some kind of magical occurrence that existed at the point where math rock, post-rock, emo, and confessional singer/songwriter all coincided. In the years since, other bands came close to reaching the tender soft-focus heights that the band reached, but nobody ever managed to find the same blend of innocent technical proficiency and openhearted melodic grace that's both compelling and peaceful at its core. Even the projects headed up later by the band's own Mike Kinsella weren't able to fully recapture that elusive feeling.
‘We’ve been here before,’ Mike Kinsella sings on Where Are We Now, the first track on American Football’s long-awaited second album – and it sounds as though they never left. After a seventeen year absence the influential emo band are finally back, the legacy of their 1999 self-titled LP only having grown in the interim. Thankfully American Football’s second LP is no nostalgic victory lap, rather a sign that they’re firmly back in the game.
When young hearts break, the culprit is rarely difficult to track down. A high school romance torn apart by distance, a letter sent and unreturned, a large hadron collision set in motion by raging hormones. This kind of heartbreak is what compels a certain subset of young people to write emo songs, some of them good, most of them quite bad. When American Football released their self-titled debut album in 1999, they joined the small group of emo bands without a bad song to their name.
American Football were a band destined to flourish in a specific time and place—it just happened to come at the turn of this decade, 10 years or so after they stopped making new music. Earnest, energetic and often ignored by critics, late-90s, Midwestern emo—defined by American Football, Braid and the Promise Ring—was ripe for reassessment around 2010 and fittingly found its audience in a moment where indie shifted hard towards avant-R&B cool and college-quad chill. Regardless of when this new vanguard emerged, it’s proven incredibly resilient, with nearly all of its scene leaders releasing their best work in the past year.
When it comes to emo, American Football are one of the bands that'll forever be mentioned as genre-defining and generation-inspiring. Their 1999 album (and for me, "Never Meant") will always be timeless and untouchable. When the band called it quits, I kept following lead vocalist, Mike Kinsella, and he continued to churn out some of my favorite music to this very day with his solo project, Owen, as well asTheir / They're / There with fanboy, Evan Weiss.
American Football’s second album, 17 years in waiting, comes with more than a few preconceptions. The band’s 1999 debut inadvertently spearheaded an emo revival that’s spawned the likes of Modern Baseball and The Hotelier, over a decade after it came out. Creating the follow-up to a record that’s become its genre’s Holy Bible can’t have been easy for Mike Kinsella and co., but ‘American Football’ manages to simultaneously stick to an existing blueprint and also work towards pushing boundaries.
Using the past as a selling point sounds like a precarious idea for most artists who’ve long said goodbye to a project, and yet it seems as if American Football have been preparing for this moment for years. It’d be absurd to rekindle some of that old romance, to go back to how things used to be and revitalize an old kinship as if things could ever be the same. It’s a hard sell, though American Football seems to get the pass simply because, even in their prime, their songwriting has a wistful affection for the past.
American Football released their self-titled debut LP in September of 1999, months after the conclusion of President Bill Clinton’s bitter impeachment trial. While the culture reeled from what Philip Roth called “the summer in America when nausea returned, when the joking didn’t stop”, this nice-guy Midwestern emo trio gave a genre built on sincerity and dewy-eyed longing its most enduring and definitive document. The group disbanded after its one-off debut, as its members graduated from the University of Illinois and moved on to different projects and careers, leaving behind nine melancholic songs about teenage feelings and summers ending that would mark the amplitude of emo’s second wave.
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.
This isn’t as bad as it first sounds, but it’s pretty bad. People obviously like to pick on reunion albums without giving them a fair shot, because we’re fickle vultures who’ve distanced ourselves so far from any interest in auteur theory that we tend not to care much about how an artist’s worldview changes (or doesn’t) over a long period of time. Anyone who lets their dislike of an artist’s new material spoil their enjoyment of the old deserves to have that enjoyment spoiled.