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Holy Hell! American Football Turns 20

Holy Hell! American Football Turns 20

The emotions are frayed, ramshackle, while the music is immaculate like the words you wish you could say.

American Football never meant to be influential. Never meant to be revered or to create genres. Hell, they should’ve completely faded from memory. In nine out of 10 universes the three Midwest dudes who’d gotten middling underground respect from burnt-out projects made this toss-off album and were never heard from again. Thank goodness we’re in that one off-kilter, very depressive, universe.

Five years earlier, the trajectory of emo leaned heavily into post-hardcore. The long shadow of Fugazi darkened bands with strands of punk. Cap’n Jazz, Mike Kinsella’s old band, spoke to that well enough. The two pillars of emo from the ‘90s, and still the two greatest albums of the genre, ended up being the genre’s cairns, with Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary leading to the eventual pummeling triumphs of At the Drive-In and Titus Andronicus. But as the decade ended, Kinsella started jamming with drummer Steve Lamos and guitarist Steve Holmes under the jokey name American Football. They recorded a debut in four days, disbanded instantly afterward and accidently ushered in a wave of twinkly, cutesy math-rock bands and the anthemic, heartrending punk of Modern Baseball and Jeff Rosenstock. It was an utterly baffling weave in the tapestry of rock music. If it’s true that every New York hipster who heard the first Velvet Underground LP went out and formed a rock band, then every Midwest sadboy who copped American Football decided to get depressed and jam in 5/4.

They knew this was a one-off. All three had played in their fair share of doomed bands and approached the project with a fatalistic view. Lamos was already in grad school while Holmes and Kinsella were about to start college proper, driving them all out of the suburban womb of Urbana, Illinois. It’s likely what created the ephemeral quality that permeates the record. Undeniable transition hid in every note. Kinsella used old lyrics from a scratched-up notebook he had found, and the rest of American Football never heard what words he was singing, thanks to a lack of a PA during rehearsal and recording.

But that seems impossible upon listening. Kinsella’s mournful, wounded words couldn’t have found a better home than the warm, sorrowful silver of these guitars. Perhaps finding something jotted down and unedited was perfect for American Football; there was no time to subvert the meaning. Kinsella sings “goodbye” more than any other word on the album. Could it come off as cheesy, even cloying and clingy? Sure, but it’s the simplest word to use, the first one you’d write down as you memorized the last time you saw your partner’s face, the last notes you made as a band, the last time you saw your hometown. “Goodbye” is the only word to say as you pull up your roots. Everything else is compartmentalizing.

Both then and now, what’s refreshing about the album is its complete lack of bullshit. Emo is often targeted for either its awkwardness or fakeness and AF undoubtedly falls into the former category, but does so with such force that it becomes a strength. The soul occasionally missing from their modern disciples comes from a gnawing need to cover up raw emotions with self-deprecation or irony. American Football doesn’t, couldn’t, have even a molecule of irony. The devastated, teenage mewlings would collapse otherwise. The emotions are frayed, ramshackle, while the music is immaculate like the words you wish you could say.

On “Stay Home,” Kinsella coos “Don’t leave home again if empathy takes energy,” a classic emo sentiment if there ever was one. But the surrounding music is delicate post-rock. The interweaving guitars giving a textured, cozy feeling that Explosions in the Sky would eventually blow out to stadium size scale. Elsewhere there’s the ridiculously titled “I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional,” which ventures the closest to that post-hardcore vein with a rattling drumbeat. But, again, Kinsella’s lyrics (“Considering everything, me leaving with regrets only makes sense”) and the shimmering guitars give a sense of fragility. Rather than the bruised poetry of Sunny Day Real Estate or the unending rage of Orchid, American Football dwelled on resignation. In 2019, it reads as a parody of itself (“Honestly/ I can’t remember teenage feelings” [[bullshit you can’t Michael]].) But only because they wrote the tropes and shortcuts that a generation of emo kids plundered.

Twenty years ago this was a shockingly insular album. The Kinsella extended universe was a fundamental part of emo, but American Football seemed to be beamed in from a different world. The guitar interplay entwines and unwinds together, sounding as much like leaves falling down as any splintered guitar can. It was a quintessentially autumnal album. The titles were allegedly slapped on as the songs were mixed, but the band knew that “The Summer Ends” matched the music too perfectly.

And it all began with “Never Meant.” The false start that sprawls out to a symphony in miniature. Each swirling guitar note creating a lattice for the next shimmering riff to be layered upon. An emo Rube Goldberg machine, every melody ripe to make its own song, but instead used to propel each section into the next twisting section. It’s the riff all emo kids attempt to learn first and ultimately fail at due to its wince-inducing tuning and subtly bonkers time signature. And there isn’t just one riff, but at least four separate guitar lines flowing in and out of each other, glorious, shiny counterpoints to Kinsella’s ragged yelp. There are few dopamine flooding moments like the sudden Tambourine shudder that accompanies the post-chorus going from spidery to speedy.

Their signature song’s recent status as an All Star-level meme for scene kids comes less from any inherent comedic quality but instead a need to make something this raw ironic. “Never Meant” is the apex of American Football, and the genre as a whole, precisely because it doesn’t mince words. It stumbles awkwardly into hormones and emotions raging with and against each other. It’s the utterly baffling, decimating feeling of a break up in the late teens and early 20s, where you know just enough to understand it isn’t actually the end of the world, but damn if it doesn’t feel like it. “We realized/ We were falling out of love” dissipating into a fluttering wall of guitars that cocoons the ears just isn’t fair.

So let’s just pretend/ Everything and anything between you and me/ Was never meant” was an introduction never meant to be heard and a hushed ending. But, miraculously, American Football continued. Still amazing live, still delivering devastating jams and still refusing to taint the half-life perfection of their first record. “You can’t miss what you forget” but, of course, they never will. And neither will we. Instead the soft, warm, mourning trumpet that closes the album rocks us to sleep, inviting us back to another session of shattering, wondrous, nostalgia.

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