Music Reviews
American Football

American Football (LP 2) American Football

(Polyvinyl) Rating - 6/10

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. So to see how they’ve reformed seventeen years later, and without changing much of what made them such an influential bridge between post-rock and emo in the late nineties, should be a foolproof way to reintroduce a project to new audiences.

Now, it’s also safe to mention that the current incarnation of American Football has changed in some aspects, though regrettably, in doing so they’ve also lost of that special resonance. That’s not to say that the band has lost everything of what made them stand out. The gorgeous Where Are We Now? does have an enduring effect, a song about accepting that it’s time to leave the past where it belongs. Main songwriter Mike Kinsella, who’s remained quietly active with Owen, demonstrates a more patient demeanor in how he now sings with a weathered sagacity. There’s a logical maturation in his singing that provides a more sullen air to his arrangements, with a staid, sing-speak tonality that finds a curious balance between current-day Ben Gibbard and Roddy Woomble. It also explains why some of the debut’s more roundabout arrangements are a bit leaner, more ironed out, which lends their usually meandering instrumentals an even more ordered structure.

The only outlier in American Football comes early on in My Instincts are the Only Enemy, a nodding wink to their debut where Kinsella comes close to mimicking the yearning vocal energy of past staples like Never Meant and But the Regrets are Killing Me. There’s still a potency to those twinkling, Let Down-inspired, guitar lines, a technique they also implement with effortless control as it leads into the softly, and frankly a little bit pappy, veering time signatures of Home is Where the Haunt Is. The middle stretch also suffers from songs that really fail to expand their reach: Born to Lose will surely appeal to those who consider Your Heart is an Empty Room as a key example of Death Cab for Cutie at their best, but for the rest of us its never ending repeating patterns are rather dull. I’ve Been So Lost for So Long has one of the album’s prettiest chord progressions, and especially so as it pleasantly shifts into a gently dissonant and amiable lattice of gleaming notes, except that Kinsella’s dramatic sentiments ["Could you please remind me/ why I should wake up tomorrow?"] are unfortunately uninspired and drab.

As it reaches its final third, American Football retains a calm and stately approach that further reinforces the band’s newfound affection for downbeat melodies and slower tempos. One of the album’s best tracks, I Need a Drink (or Two of Three), blares a haunting trumpet accompaniment that’s reminiscent of their previous album’s closing statement The One With the Wurlitzer, where Kinsella acknowledges that change is a process than unfolds over time. But then the closing two tracks, though capably written and retain a lovely uniformity, also tend to grab hold of its emotions with arrangements that are less enchanting and scrupulously clean. They’re neat and slick, sure, but also largely forgettable and even stiff in carriage and expression.

Upon first listen, the mannered passivity of American Football sure does undermine the wide-eyed vitality of their 1999 debut. In a way, the fact that they’ve mellowed out, and understandably so, should provide comfort and solace to those who only expected a gradual repositioning of sorts. But regardless of its more sophisticated tone, the same cannot be said for the album’s rather callow lyrical content, which doesn’t just border on, but fully embraces, mawkish poetic cliches, which causes one to question if the band is truly willing to insert more of their own growth and experiences into adulthood. Which, in turn, reduces their return as nothing more than just a faithful look into the past.