Twenty years later, LP3 seeks to make good on the promise shown by three college kids who managed to half-ass their way into an indie rock classic.
If Midwestern emo had a royal family, it would be the Kinsellas: Brothers Mike and Tim, as well as cousin Nate (all of whom will herein be referred to by their first names), exist within a dozen bands, including Cap’n Jazz, Owen, Joan of Arc, Owls, Make Believe and, of course, American Football. Their bands have achieved different levels of reverence and importance over the years, but American Football (or LP1), the sole full-length from the first run of Mike’s post-Cap’n Jazz time-killer project in college is a universe unto itself, their brand of twinkling guitars and sparse, emotionally-charged lyrics shifting the fabric of emo music to follow. The band returned in 2014 with Nate on bass and a second album, also called American Football (LP2), and though it’s a great album on its own, the debate rages on in any Midwestern emo Facebook group about whether or not their sophomore album is a worthy follow-up. This likely says more about the crushing weight of expectations laid on LP2 than about the quality of the album itself.
LP3 isn’t prey to the same beast, and this is a good thing, because it allows us just a little bit more breathing room to see it for what it is: a striking display of talent by a band honing their skills with new brushes. The album art – a blue and pink hued snapshot on a foggy morning – feels like such a departure from the house that represents the first two albums, and the sound follows: the frame has widened, and a new wash of color emerges. Almost every song here crosses the five-minute mark, the extra space devoted to exploring their new, vibrant colors, at odds with the often stifling framework of their genre – aided by the really, truly gorgeous work of producer Jason Cupp (who also produced LP2). The interplay between the guitars of Mike and Steve Holmes is sublime, where it feels like every note has been placed exactly where it needs to to tug on your heartstrings. The rhythm section, too, feels incredibly tight, with Steve Lamos’ nimble drumwork carrying the dreamier moments of the album. The beloved trumpet returns, too, as well as some stunning glockenspiel work by Nate, which helps set the album’s tone on “Silhouettes.”
Mike’s lyrics – which are as vague as ever – are frequently concerned with his relationship with aging, swinging from embracing it (“Oh the muscle memory/ It must take to stay close to me…Tell me again/ What’s the allure of inconsequential love?” his mournful voice skating along the surface of “Silhouettes”) to begging for it to end (“When will it end, relentless adolescence?” he asks on closer “Life Support,” almost a comment on the trappings of the genre). Mostly, he just leans into his own glumness, like on the melodramatic “Doom in Full Bloom,” where he describes himself as “A dull guillotine, you’re still alive.” Later, in “Heir Apparent,” he’s self-flagellating about it: “I’m sorry you need me/ For hanging on your arm, a child you can’t ignore/ I’m unapologetically sorry for everything.” Even as he tackles everything from alcoholism and infidelity to his bleak self-esteem, his voice glides through the album, the sound of which has a hypnotic effect – it’s the best he’s sounded on any of the band’s albums to date.
LP3 comes with a three-pack of unexpected guest stars, each more fantastic than the last. Elizabeth Powell of Land of Talk slips into “Every Wave to Ever Rise,” delivering lines about heartbreak in French and singing alongside Mike lamenting the fact that he outlived flowers she gave him. Just one song later, on the drolly-named and crutch-focused “Uncomfortably Numb,” Paramore’s Hayley Williams chimes in, seemingly representing the impulses that drive the themes of alcoholism within the song: “Now whenever I try to be clear with you/ I only end up feeling see-through/ I’ve tried, but you’ve won/ Comatose, like father like son.” Finally, Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, the slightest of the batch (whose own self-titled album feels like a spiritual twin to the expansive spaces presented here) appears for “I Can’t Feel You,” where she provides call-and-response to Mike: “The whispers unfold/ (I can’t hear you)/ Pained and pleading/ (I can’t see you).”
There will be plenty of people who doubt, or flat-out won’t believe, that LP3 is an altogether better record than LP1 – that album is just too important, in terms of impact (both sonically and personally) to lovers of Midwestern emo, and it’s entirely possible that no album the band could make will ever feel better than their debut. But those able to step away from those biases will find that LP3 is a spectacular record, and is every bit as good as LP1 was, if not better. Twenty years later, LP3 seeks to make good on the promise shown by three college kids who managed to half-ass their way into an indie rock classic – and how satisfying it can be when those kids grow up and stop half-assing it.