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2016 is the year that keeps on giving. The Avalanches, Frank Ocean, and now joining the comeback ranks is American Football. What distinguishes American Football from the other artists that have decided 2016 is the year to return to the musical spotlight after a lengthy layoff is that American Football was never a full-time band. Not when they attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and certainly not now when the band members are spread out across four cities in three states. All three members of the band have become respected in their given career field with little if any of that success predicated on being a member of American Football. It was not until just before the 2014 reunion that the members of American Football were even speaking regularly. And those reunion dates weren’t just nostalgia concerts; they recorded a new album that’s out on October 21.
Mike Kinsella (Vocals, Guitar), Steve Lamos (Drums, Trumpet), and Steve Holmes (Guitar) are no longer the same hormonal young men that created their 1999 debut record, a seminal emo album that helped a generation of kids navigate teen angst. Now that the trio are adults, professionals, and fathers a more mature and progressive sound is inevitable. For an act that has been preserved in amber for the last seventeen years, this creates a dangerous tightrope walk. The sound and message of American Football has been so ingrained in their fans for the past seventeen years that a new sound is potentially alienating for fans young and old, yet the band cannot possibly be expected to create something with similar youthful emotional themes. Rather than slowly traversing the uncharted water of a new sound the band is forced to dive into the deep end of how they feel as stable adults rather than unhinged college kids, a tame and less attractive endeavor.
In order to help shake off some of the rust that can wear on a band who has spent seventeen years outside a studio, the band decided to permanently add Kinsella’s Cousin Nate Kinsella on bass, who has been touring with the group since the 2014 reunion. Nate Kinsella is an accomplished musician of his own who has also contributed to Mike’s recording projects after American Football under the Owen moniker. Bass on every track should create a fuller sound than what was heard on the debut record. The deep tones will be forced to find breathing room within the two guitars’ maximalist technical playing style. The odd time signatures and alternate tunings that were such an integral part of the first record’s charm will be forced to share the mix, potentially making it harder to get lost in the dizzying effect of Kinsella and Holmes’ meandering guitar leads weaving in and out of one another .
The first thing that should be apparent to fans unfamiliar with Mike Kinsella’s post-American Football output is his vocal delivery, which is noticeably higher in the mix than on the first record. Absent is the endearing high pitched whine that the now self-proclaimed emo Dad sang with as a young man. On the new single, “I’ve Been So Lost For So Long” Kinsella delivers a more lyrical approach as a man who is sharp to his own vocal range. The change is a drastic difference that has become a defining feature of what sets Owen apart from earlier Kinsella projects. One of the greatest challenges the second iteration of American Football faces is distinguishing themselves from their first incarnation of the act, as well as being labeled “Owen plays American Football.” Additionally, the four late thirty-somethings run the risk of “Dads Getting The Band Back Together.” American Football in 2016 has to set out to distinguish itself as a unique musical endeavor if it is going to be considered a success by fans and bandmates alike.
The debut single showed resemblances of what so many loved about the original American Football record. The guitars are undoubtedly twinkly. Kinsella’s lyrics are sincere, poignant, and even histrionic which is perfectly appropriate for American Football. Steve Lamos lays down jazzy percussion that remains interesting while refraining from flashy drum fills. The band members have clearly made a conscious decision to create something familiar and fan-centric. It’s quite remarkable that the adults who now make up American Football owed their fans no reason to reunite, play shows, or create an album; yet they’ve done all three of those things because they believe in themselves to create something worthwhile. At this stage in their careers, a follow-up to the debut record is a baffling task from its outset. Strongly aware of that, American Football has instead chosen insecurity in order to reinvent themselves. The risks that American Football are taking coupled with their motivation for returning make this a reunion worth celebrating.
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