At the turn of the millennium, the music scene seemed to be swelling with gimmicks across the board. Boy bands and girl bands as far as the eye could see, songs about being literally blue, Lou Bega was a thing (?) and who could forget nu-metal, of which most has clearly aged fantastically.
They were pretty bleak times, there’s no two ways about it. Something was coming though; a little speck of light in the darkness, a comforting hand to hold.
A record that chose not to scream bloody murder about its problems, nor bottle them and pump out a sugar-sweet radio hit with 17 choruses. Twinkling out of Urbana, Illinois came American Football, armed with emotional processing power and a fairly impressive pedal board.
I’d love to talk all about how this young then-trio took the world completely by storm, made millions, and how their art never suffered for it. How they won awards, became household names and completely turned the industry on its head. You know that didn’t happen though.
The story goes that they made one album, and split a year later.
Well, not really but I can’t kill the story when there’s so much more to do.
Over the next decade, American Football became one of the biggest cases of wasted potential in alternative history. Starting off as purely a hipster classic, (the favourite album of your favourite artist in the scene) the album only began to gain serious traction when the band were long-dead. Eventually, it was bedrock for the genre. Before emo was a dirty word, it was an institution held up on the backs of a handful of Midwest artists, none more prominent than the band that burned twice as bright for no time at all.
So, why does this album hold up? We already briefly touched on emotionally charged music ageing like milk, so why did this set of cuts capture hearts and ears? The enduring legacy of this release extends way beyond just mythos and prospect, as proven since the band returned to the field of action in 2014 (see, we got there).
I think we’d better explore.
Opener ‘Never Meant’ is arguably the song that has become the most synonymous with Midwest emo. The shimmering strings and urgent, pushing drum rhythms of the song’s now iconic opening riff create a complex and troubled ambience long before “let’s just forget, everything said” lands on the ear. A ballad of post-breakup damage control that makes a conscious effort not to indulge itself too heavily in melodrama, with frontman Mike Kinsella saying as much to his former paramour; it’s a subversive track that gets its point across and leaves.
“I just think it’s best. You can’t miss what you forget”.
Layers of aching guitar are complemented by a smooth trumpet line (courtesy of Steve Lamos) heading into ‘The Summer Ends’. The band wistfully debate what may come of them when the seasons change this time, whether their relationships will remain intact and whether they even should. “We’ve both been so unhappy” is given reasoning, and they make sure it stings to hear.
‘Honestly?’ and ‘For Sure’ have always occupied my mind as two parts of the same piece. Both tracks centre thematically around uncertainty: the former being towards one’s own feelings, and the latter dealing with Mike’s understanding of his partners’, and growing to feel a very real, perhaps unspoken disconnect. Much of this record’s lyrical content reads as grievance airing some time after the fact; ruminations on a time you thought you knew better, or didn’t, and decided to naively pursue the thing anyway.
‘You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon’ is an instrumental track, and perhaps waves the flag for math-rock the hardest on the record. A wonderful piece of tight playing, the song sways all over, tying melancholic melody to melancholic melody with gorgeous clean tone licks and ever-pursuing bass.
The soft vocal line of ‘But The Regrets Are Killing Me’ utilises space to traverse along the instrumentation freely, pondering through the might-have-beens of a time gone by.
“A long goodbye with mixed emotions, just fragments of another life”.
The immediately following ‘I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional’ doubles down on this sentiment, further detailing a need to be separate, nomadic for the mean time; but with more attention turned to a person as the cause. Kinsella attempts to outline why continuing on as normal is a dreadful idea, laying it flat with “If you’re still prone to accidents and misunderstandings, you won’t understand me, or my motivation for being alone”. That’ll do it.
Running at a little over eight minutes, ‘Stay Home’ feels no such length. A word to the wise about the two way street of sounding off, there’s a flame of frustration under the words. The repetition of “that’s life, it’s so social” seems to land more bitterly with each delivery, as if to hammer the point over the head with no room for misinterpretation. It’s a shake of the shoulders, a ‘how do you not get this?’ about the fundamentals of any healthy relationship.
To take us home, ‘The One With The Wurlitzer’ is another stunning instrumental piece. The guitar work spins out into itself, pacing in circles and oblivious to everything around it. The organ and trumpet take full advantage of that, stealing the front and centre spot, almost on top of the mix, downheartedly covering the full length of the track.
American Football is an indispensable piece of the alt-rock narrative. I could close out this article with a tediously long laundry-list of acts who’ve been inspired by, borrowed from, both, or both and outright ripped off the band since.
It’s so important to remember that the band were barely out of college at the time of recording; hearing the legitimate gripes and fears of that age group delved into in real time, definitely adds a layer of pertinence to the songwriting. Part of the legacy I alluded to earlier is in the handling of subject matter on this record. To have such a sense of clarity and artistic vision about the project that it’s worth writing about twenty years removed says that there was a lot more meat on the bone than just ‘a first-love breakup album’. There’s such valid and thoughtful introspection delivered about where their futures are headed, and the people they want to be moving forward, that I completely understand why and how this album became the genre cornerstone it is. It’s in equal measure life-affirming and harrowing, in lots of ways microcosmic of being that age… and it is wonderful.