A reunion is a tricky thing to get right. When a widely adored band returns after a long time away, there’s a daunting amount of room for disappointment. Some bands try to recapture the lightning they managed to bottle two decades ago and end up sounding like shambling zombies of their former selves, unable – as anyone is – to return in their middle age to being the people they were in their youth. Others don’t concern themselves with new music at all and simply play the old songs to the people who want to hear them with only half the energy and sincerity it would take to make them worth the ticket price. Emo has seen examples of both models in the past half-decade, as the genre’s revival sparked a renewed interest in its golden-era bands. But it’s also seen a third model. A select few groups have found a sweet spot of honesty and genuineness in who they are now, combined with a connection to and awareness of who they were twenty years ago. It’s in this sweet spot that a band manages to hang on to their soul.
As reunited emo bands go, American Football are anomalous in that their second time around has by now lasted longer than their first. All the mythos and reverence that came to surround the band in the time that they were gone was built in only three years and one record together. It puts them in a unique position, that of being on only their third album 22 years after they formed; they’re a band still exploring and expanding their sound, yet with the maturity that comes from age and experience.
When the first American Football album was released in 1999 its incorporation of jazz and post-rock influences, with odd mathy tunings and time signatures, made for a unique and fascinating take on emo. But it was a formula that, while charming, sometimes felt clumsy, their musical identity not quite developed enough to pull it off seamlessly. When they returned for LP2 seventeen years later, they had figured out how to stitch those same influences together more fluently. And now on LP3, they weave them with confidence; the songs swoop and swerve and drift gracefully, effortlessly, untethered to go where they need to. Take opening track ‘Silhouettes,’ seven minutes long and sure of its journey through all of them. Haunting chimes, hypnotic guitars and bold, striking bass intertwine, pushing around and through each other, all the while carried by vocalist Mike Kinsella’s delicate melodies. It’s a strong and self-assured beginning to the record, void of any of the indecision that LP2 struggled with at times.
It’s this confidence that allows for the band to expand their musical arsenal, exploring more richly than before what American Football can sound like. The gorgeous woodwind and piano breaks and melancholic children’s choir outro of ‘Heir Apparent’; the atmospheric synth burrowed at the base of ‘Life Support’; the building, almost Eastern-influenced chanting hum that opens ‘I Can’t Feel You.’ Perhaps the most effective new addition to their toolbox is their use of guest vocalists, a new depth reached in the conversations created – literal or otherwise – between Kinsella’s vocals and those of his counterpart. Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, on that latter song, repeats sorrowful confessions between Kinsella’s lines (I can’t hear you / I can’t see you / I don’t need you). Land of Talk’s Elizabeth Powell, on ‘Every Wave to Ever Rise,’ sings in French as she and Kinsella share the chorus. Most theatrically, ‘Uncomfortably Numb’ features Paramore’s Hayley Williams in direct conversation with Kinsella, two sides of a story unfolding through the track’s four minutes. “I blamed my father in my youth / Now, as a father, I blame the booze,” sings Kinsella, while in a later verse Williams counters, “I’ve tried, but you’ve won / Comatose, like father, like son.”
Those lines, heavy as they are, are proof of American Football pulling off the most demanding feat of any emo reunion: the striking of the lyrical balance. Emo is a curious genre, since very little of its definition or categorization comes from any shared musical characteristics. In 1999, the only thing that tied the jazzy American Football to the melodic hardcore of Saves the Day, the power pop of The Get Up Kids or the giant alt-rock of Jimmy Eat World was the open, heart-on-their-sleeve lyricism they all shared. And so American Football came to be defined by lines like, ‘Let’s just pretend everything and anything between you and me was never meant’, and, ‘Not dead yet, but the regrets are killing me’, every line sung with urgency and drama that tore its way into heartstrings, yet also belay the band’s juvenility. The relationships the 22-year-old Kinsella was drawing from were those of college and maybe even of high school (the emotional takeaway of one song being, ‘Let’s just see what happens when the summer ends’) and there’s an inherent endearing youthfulness in the way everything on that record is so life-or-death. For a returning emo band in their forties, married with kids as Kinsella is, there’s always a question of how they translate that youthful openness into the heavier, real-life matters of adulthood; too far one way and it’s a slog, too far the other and it’s a cringe. Though it’s a far cry from his college-years anguish when, on LP3, Kinsella sings of the internal struggles of marriage and fatherhood, he does it with the same sincerity and spirit that made his lyrics some of the most beloved in emo canon twenty years ago. Take the afore-mentioned lines from ‘Uncomfortably Numb’; from ‘Every Wave to Ever Rise’, ‘All the ballads you sing to me / One by one slip into a minor key’; from ‘Silhouettes’, ‘I’m a cloud when you come home to me / Tell me again, what’s the allure of inconsequential love?’. They’re poetic and intelligent, while honest and grounded; mature, yet not lost in that maturity.
The same is true of the record as a whole; American Football have continued to carry emo into maturity, indeed raising the bar for other bands attempting the same. It would have been so easy for American Football to be lost in the years that they were gone, re-emerging as a name on a t-shirt but resembling themselves nothing further than that. Yet they have consistently pushed to find the ground they once stood on, while simultaneously pushing to find a ground higher than that, and on LP3 they stand firmly on both levels. Two decades on from where they began it, American Football have reached the peak of their journey – so far, anyway.