Hindsight is a funny thing. In 1999, no one took American Football seriously—at times, it feels like that includes the band. The Urbana, IL locals played a spattering of local shows, but never left the Midwest. They never took the time to recruit a permanent bassist, functioning largely as a studio-only band during their original three-year run.
But in the twenty years that have passed since their eponymous full-length, they have become one of the most influential bands of the Midwest Emo sound, often lauded alongside groups like Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, and Sunny Day Real Estate. "Never Meant" is such a perfect encapsulation of the sound that it's become a meme.
Then, three years ago they rose like a Phoenix from the ashes (now with a permanent bassist for the first time). The revival surprised everyone—including AmFoo frontrunner and emo veteran Mike Kinsella. And when LP2 dropped, the group faced the daunting task of proving that there was a purpose for the reunion—that it was more than just an attempt to capitalize on their cult success. Whether they succeeded is a matter of some debate (I personally like it better than the first record. Please don't egg me).
But LP3 has a different challenge. What does a reunited band do when their reunion outlasts their original run? Do they keep treading the same waters, or do they forge ahead to create something new?
The most obvious answer is in the album cover. Instead of focusing on the (imagined) same house for the third time, the cover of LP3 looks outward beyond the frozen outskirts of Urbana. The message is clear—the group is setting out in search of something new, abandoning the familiar domesticity of the first two records.
And that makes for a great promo blurb, but does the music actually communicate that?
This record is a stunning example of how a band can reinvent themselves without losing any of the things that made them special in the first place. All of the elements that caught the attention of emo kids all over the internet are still here—twinkly guitars, effortless off-time rhythms, and Mike Kinsella's poignant and scalpal-sharp lyrics. But those elements have blossomed into a masterful work that takes notes from post rock, shoegaze, and prog. Songs frequently stretch past the seven-minute mark, filled with subtle meter shifts, borrowed chords, and key changes. The instrumental work is incredibly technical, but you'd never guess by how chilled the record is—which is the mark of a great instrumentalist.
This is an opus, and American Football is treating it as such, inviting three guest vocalists in for duets with Kinsella. "Uncomfortably Numb" features Paramore's Hayley Williams, which is the only slight misfire of the album. For all her punk roots, Hayley has a voice that can go toe-to-toe with any pop singer on the Top 40, which is a bit jarring when trading lines against Kinsella's near-whispered coo. But make no mistake—that might be the worst track on the record, but it's still a fantastic track.
It's a little early to see where LP3 will land amongst the band's other self-titled work. But in the first cursory listens, I can say that this is at least as good as their legendary 1999 self-titled—maybe even a little better.