The lovely mansion in Urbana, Illinois, that graced the cover of their first two albums has been abandoned by American Football. That house became a symbol for youth, the band, and Midwest emo. Its successor on the third American Football LP’s cover has a frightening beauty, with bloodshot daybreak and creeping fog. The photo was taken around 10 minutes away in Champaign, and from a certain angle, it appears to be the morning after the original house at 704 W. High Street was reduced to cinders. It’s possible that American Football would want it that way, as their sparkling third album abandons their self-mythology in favor of blurry, daring leaps into a new dawn.
The seven-minute “Silhouettes” swaddles the band’s guitar lattices in reverb and glitter-gray exhaust as American Football (known popularly as LP3 since all of the band’s studio albums are self-titled) awakens with microscopic bell chimes and vibraphone shudders. After a sleepless night, it’s Steve Reich reborn as a tinny iPhone alarm on lead singer Mike Kinsella’s bedside. Kinsella sings, “Oh, the muscle memory it must take to stay,” a stark contrast to the usual American Football song, in which ex-lovers wistfully gaze into a Midwestern autumn sunset, or his work with the band Owen, in which he’s staring down an Old Style at last call. Despite this, a remark like “Tell me again what’s the fascination of insignificant love” refers to the desire to have at least felt something, an escape from the mundane that sneaks into any love of consequence.
The old emo cliché “nothing feels good” is explored in LP3 and transformed into a kind of middle-aged anhedonia. Kinsella whispers amid skittering percussion and glossy harmonics, “Sensitivity deprived/I can’t feel a thing inside.” Kinsella used his reputation as Quintessential Emo Dad to justify his self-pity on his 2016 album LP2, which was replete with first-thought-best-thought songs like this. Kinsella’s newfound capacity to wink and cry simultaneously is reflected in the title “Uncomfortably Numb.” “I blamed my father in my youth/Now as a father, I blame the liquor,” he says as he ages into his 40s to hide a sickness so deep-rooted and suppressed that it can only be understood as genetic: “I blamed my father in my youth/Now as a father, I blame the booze.”
The sonic evolution of American Football—with unheralded producer Jason Cupp again rendering American Football in brilliant topographic detail, the album is an idealized form of music to test hi-fi speakers—isn’t the only example of late-’90s Midwestern emo heroes gracefully transitioning to fatherhood. Still, few can match the sonic evolution of American Football. Emo’s turbulent rhythms and sad, untrained voices have separated themselves from its hardcore roots, blending into shoegaze, post-rock, and minimalist jazz—genres that are more concerned with vibes than feelings.
LP3’s tracks are nearly all five minutes long, and although previous American Football songs were interior excursions, this album’s songs wander to new vistas in all directions. The flow of “Every Wave to Ever Rise” is passive and asymmetrical, like a tidal pool, until the outro sinks into the same deep sea as the Cure’s Disintegration. Yet, the entrance of “Doom in Full Bloom” dares to tread the immense oceans of Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The impact of newly inducted multi-instrumentalist Nate Kinsella is most noticeable on the rubbery backbone of “Every Wave to Ever Rise” and the thrumming motorik of “I Can’t Feel You,” but the wealth of textures he brings to LP3 warrants alternative superlative titles like the ones they used back in the late ’90s: The One With the Mellotron Flutes and Children’s Choir (“Heir Apparent”), The One With the French Vocals.
The emo diplomacy of “Uncomfortably Numb,” featuring Hayley Williams of Paramore, is the biggest surprise, given just much as every emo band in 2019 sounds at least vaguely like American Football and Paramore. If Williams brought Paramore’s most well-known tracks wattage, she would immediately shatter the song. Instead, as Kinsella slips deeper into despair, she gently and imperceptibly weaves a voice of conscience into the second stanza. During the bridge, she tenderly tries to cheer him up, then takes up the third verse in a deeper, dusky register that is completely identifiable as Hayley Williams’, transforming an emo duet into a humble, painful exchange between lapsed lovers.
LP1 was indie rock’s equivalent of Richard Linklater’s 1995 film Before Sunrise—a humble masterpiece of mixed emotions that offered affirmation to hopeless and skeptical romantics, believing in love at first sight while questioning whether it has to last forever to be meaningful—did it matter if they got back together? And, like Before Sunset, LP2 capitalized on the original’s sleeper success with an unabashed sequel that followed the amusing awkwardness of recoupling while aiming to hit the same beats. Though not redundant or unneeded, it felt indulgent, too bound by its predecessor’s relationship to build a new story; Mike Kinsella admits it was essentially fan service.
And in the final act of both LP3 and Linklater’s great 2013 picture Before Midnight, their leads are cast in roles that aren’t exactly traditional: Jesse and Celine are married with children, and American Football is a regularly touring band that releases albums every three years rather than every seventeen, all of which tap into a darker, deeper resonance than they could have imagined during their flawless invention. At the end of “Uncomfortably Numb,” Williams cries, “I just want you home.” Maybe it’s a longing for the little, unforgettable romances of “Never Meant” or “The Summer Ends,” or maybe it’s a couple struggling in vain to think their love is worth fighting for? Fans come to the house at 704 W. High Street for the latter, but American Football has been open about its aim from the start—they can go home, but they’d rather struggle forward with the heaviest of hearts.