After a 17-year hiatus, American Football are back with a second self-titled album American Football (LP2). The band experienced a slow crawl to unexpected cult status following the release of their 1999 self-titled debut album. Its jazzy, unassuming post-rock sound has been a cornerstone for emo music in the 2000s. Mike Kinsella (vocals/guitar), Steve Holmes (guitar) and Steve Lamos (drums/trumpet) were just college kids when they recorded American Football, only beginning to realize their artistic aptitudes, and yet, that album continues to define them as musicians today. LP2 is their attempt to redefine themselves. Unfortunately, it blurs the lines of authenticity that made their music so beloved in the first place.
In a few ways, LP2 is a step up from American Football. Actual verse-chorus structures, a full-time bass player (Nick Kinsella) and expanded lyricism successfully refine their sound. Mike Kinsella makes unnerving observations with lyrics like, “The best way to describe an ocean to a blind man is to push him in,” on “Everyone Is Dressed Up,” and the self-aware line, “The past still present tense,” on “Home Is Where the Haunt Is.”
That said, the dimension in these moments are counteracted by a lack thereof in the album’s heavy pace and unwillingness to let loose. Kinsella’s lyrics are cheesy just as often as they’re clever, as heard on “I’ve Been Lost for So Long” when he laments, “Doctor, it hurts when I exist,” and “I can’t break this bender/ To it, I surrender” on “I Need a Drink (or 2 or 3).” I swear I wrote similarly cringeworthy poetry when I was in the seventh grade.
“Desire Gets in the Way” is a standout track for its semi-disregard of formalities. In place of try-hard, vibrato-laced vocals, listeners get raw emotion by way of less elegant delivery. “I’m down for whatever,” Kinsella discloses during the bridge. “The uglier the better.” He should have applied that latter lyric to the album itself. LP2 pulls blood from the same emotional vein that made its predecessor great, but it’s too regulated to induce a metaphysical reaction.
The album would benefit from a few bangers to break the monotony of nine similarly paced, carefully performed ballads. I would have loved to hear more power jams or even an entirely instrumental track. American Football’s guitar interplay and panicked intensity stood over its minimalistic, straightforward lyrics, allowing their playing to take the mainstage. On LP2, Kinsella’s voice pushes other sonic elements to the background. It might have served them better to let their instruments do the talking.
Armed with a newfound sense of self-awareness, time and improved technical skills, American Football had the power to create something truly explosive with LP2. Ironically, their recognition of this fact proved to be a setback. I understand their motivation to make an album free of their youthful shortcomings; they recorded their first album in just four days using only the instruments they could find or borrow, lyrics were a total afterthought and it lacked bass in all but two songs. Despite these perceived flaws, American Football was brilliance born from naivety and it never felt lacking. The rawness they aimed to correct is what made their sound great to begin with. LP2 is solid, but still falls short of its potential in that it feels more calculated than genuine.