‘Emo music for adults.’
On paper, it looks like an absolute trainwreck of an idea—the kind of thing that simply isn’t going to work, and just shouldn’t exist.
‘Emo,’ as a genre, isn’t exactly for adults, is it? It was (and maybe still is?), inherently for young people—men and women in their teens and possibly teetering into their early 20s, struggling to process themselves and their complicated feelings—their emotions, you could say—but can find themselves in this much maligned, and at times problematic1, subset of contemporary popular music.
But it, more or less, is the kind of music that those young men and women eventually age out of, and it takes a special kind of album to be the emo album you carry with you into adulthood and beyond. A lot of the genre—especially the bands that were cropping up in the early 2000s, in a post-Dashboard Confessional world, had an extremely short shelf life.
Unfortunately, for lack of any other descriptors, ‘emo music for adults’ is the best way I feel I can articulate the kind of songs that the storied band American Football are making right now.
Released 20 years ago, American Football’s self-titled debut album is the kind of record that so closely associated with its own compelling back story and mythology that it is, at times, at risk of eclipsing the album itself.
The band, then a trio, formed in the late 1990s in the Champagne-Urbana area of Illinois; coming together after the dissolution of the short lived The One Up Downstairs, American Football was, at the time, comprised of Steve Holmes, Steve Lamos, and Mike Kinsella, who had previously performed with Cap’n Jazz2 and Joan of Arc. Making music that could be seen as a step backward from the visceral tension of Sunny Day Real Estate, American Football’s first record is a ramshackle mix of math rock time signatures, plainly spoken and confessional lyrics that are buried in the rough mix, and what the band’s Wikipedia calls a ‘softer musical sensibility.’
American Football was never meant to be anything more than a studio project for one record (and one EP released in advance of that)—and if this factoid is true, it’s pretty fucking bleak: the band split up shortly after the self-titled record’s release, and apparently knew, as they were recording it, that it was never really going to last.
Well received with college radio upon its release, American Football, over time, developed its cult following of devotees.
Kinsella went on to form what is more or less a solo project, Owen, and reunited American Football, with his cousin Nate on bass, in 2014—15 years after the band split up—and performed a handful of live shows to support the deluxe vinyl reissue of the album.
Upon the band’s reunion, Kinsella joked that “the time was ripe for three middle aged dudes to play some old songs about teenage feelings.” American Football was written when the band members were in their early 20s, and playing old songs is one thing, sure, but the most surprising thing about American Football’s compelling back story is the release of their second album, also (confusingly) titled American Football—or LP2 for ease—which could accurately be called middle aged dudes playing songs about adult feelings.
A bulk of the band’s second album hits, for me anyway, entirely too close to home (e.g. “I’ve Been So Lost For So Long.”) Less ambiguous than other bands making music about adult feelings (The National), LP2’s material was, at times, like a punch in the stomach. Dark and uncomfortably honest—it was a stark look at what it means to be an adult who is ‘going through some things,’ but at the same time, Kinsella could be incredibly dramatic with his imagery—I mean, right out of the gate on “Where Are We Now?,” he paints a brutal portrait of how difficult it is maintaining a relationship with another person.
“Leave me or don’t—I don’t care,” he sings in the song’s final moments. “Just let me know when you finally drag your body out of bed, and I’ll get my things.”
For a band that broke up before their first album was even released, it’s difficult to think of American Football as an active, working act, despite the fact that there has been a second album, and subsequent tours in support of it. So it really shouldn’t of surprised me as much as it did when the band’s third album—again, confusingly titled American Football, or LP3, was announced late last year.
Saying there is a ‘night and day’ difference between the band’s sound and songwriting capabilities from 1999 and 2016 is not really doing the growth justice; and truthfully, all you need to know about the growth of American Football, you should be able to glean from the album artwork of all three self-titled efforts.
Their first is now iconic among album art—the exterior of a house on High Street in Urbana, LP1 can be looked at as someone on the outside looking in; LP2 takes you inside the house, the front door ajar slightly, and sunlight peaking in through the home’s storm door—maybe a stretch, but it could be seen as someone inside, looking out.
On the cover of the third self-titled American Football album, the house is gone.3 We’re not even in a neighborhood anymore—it’s been replaced with a devastating pink sunset in the distance, casting myriad hues across a cloudy sky.
Arriving on the cusp of the 20th anniversary of their sacred debut, LP3 is an expansive and bombastic album that, even though it may falter at times, never buckles under the weight of its own ambitions sonically speaking, and serves as a very stark meditation on fatherhood and adulthood, among other things—themes that were prevalent on the band’s second outing.
Kinsella as a songwriter has a knack for juxtaposing his brutal honesty with a terribly fierce self-deprecating sense of humor—“Oh, how I wish that I were me; the man that you first met and married,” he sighs on “I Need A Drink,” from the band’s second album. That sense of humor is as sharp as ever, right out of the gate, on LP3, within the complicated musical layers of “Silhouettes.” Set against Kinsella and Holmes’ interlocked, hypnotic guitar play, with the addition of a layer of the very un-emo instrumentation of a glockenspiel, Kinsella sings in the first verse,
“All the muscle memory it must take to stay close to me.”
The tone American Football strike within the album’s first three tracks (also, coincidentally, are among the strongest of the set) is mournful and extraordinarily pensive. The album’s second track, “Every Wave to Ever Rise” is additionally haunting thanks to the spectral guest vocals from Liz Powell, the reclusive frontwoman for the much beloved Canadian indie outfit Land of Talk—her multi-tracked, whisper thin contributions during the song’s refrain, including a key lyric to the song delivered in French (“My heart hurts—it’s love’s fault,” is the translation per Genius) give an additional dimension to an already densely layered composition that contrasts Kinsella’s dark lyrical content with a adventurous musical arrangement .
It’s also, at this point, if you’ll indulge me in an aside, I’d like to mention the amount of guest artists included on LP3. As the mp3s unpacked themselves into my iTunes library, I was surprised to see three features listed—the aforementioned track with Powell, “I Can’t Feel You,” a song that arrives in the album’s second half, featuring a guest turn from Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, and “Uncomfortably Numb,” hands down the most heartbreaking (and therefore the best) song on the album, which boats an appearance from Hayley Williams of Paramore fame.
I’m not opposed to a band like American Football including guest artists (all female, too) but it’s just a surprised, as ‘indie rock’ acts do not usually this many features, if any at all. As I stared at the track list, I had to do a double take and wonder if I had accidentally been sent and downloaded of a rap album.
The album’s first half (it is, after all, only eight songs) comes in the shuffling, shimmering form of “Heir Apparent,” a song that concludes with a small children’s choir singing the song’s refrain—adding a small touch of whimsy to provide a contrast to Kinsella’s lyrics.
“Selfishness is inherited; skinny lips and tattoos—what could I do?”
The second half of American Football opens with a lengthy, sweeping, grand, and gorgeous “Doom in Full Bloom,” a song that, again, provides Kinsella the chance to sketch out the difficulties of maintaining adult relationships—“You’re buried in the library, just you could hide from me; I’ve never been so alone—so desperate to be home,” a minor echo of the themes found in the opening track of the band’s second album.
LP3 doesn’t so much begin to lose steam after the half, but it does contain some of the album’s less successfully executed songs; for the record, there are really no ‘bad’ songs, per se, on American Football. It’s not a perfect album, but I never was going to lead you to believe that it was—it’s an album that, almost too proudly, wears its flaws on it sleeves, much like Kinsella, as a songwriter, wears his own flaws as a person.
The album concludes with “Life Support,” which is the kind of song so dramatic that there was no way it wasn’t written to be the final song on the album—lush in its arrangements (including a string section buried somewhere underneath those guitars) it’s the kind of big, emotionally structured moment on an album that harkens back, if ever so slightly, to other big, emotionally structured moments on albums from the past—“For Me, This is Heaven” by Jimmy Eat World comes to mind almost immediately.
There is little, if any, resolve to be found on American Football as “Life Support” ends, with Kinsella singing strongly, but somberly,
“Disappointment and grief come easy—forgiveness is a mystery.”
Truthfully, when American Football was announced last December, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
I knew that, given time, I would listen to it, but the sprawling, ambitious first single, “Silhouettes,” was a lot for me to take in at the time.
I also wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the Hayley Williams feature “Uncomfortably Numb.” Without listening to the song, I was a little confused about why the girl from Paramore was a guest artist on this song—a song that had an obvious Pink Floyd nod in its title.
But then I actually listened to the song.
For two years—almost exactly two years, to the day—I wrote for the local newspaper in my community. The easiest, or most polite way, to explain why I left was because that, after two years, I realized it takes a certain kind of person with a very specific demeanor and drive to do that job, and I was never going to be that person—something I maybe figured out a little too late. I quit in August of 2016, and I started working in the produce department at the co-op—a job I looked at as being inherently less stressful4 and detrimental to my well-being.
The kind of place where I could more or less start over, and rebuild my mental health.
In the fall of 2016, I sat at the desk in my office at home, listening to the second American Football album, preparing to write a review—I watched the fallen leaves swirl around in the yard, casting slight shadows against the window as the song “I’ve Been So Lost For So Long” began to play. Rarely do I ever feel ‘so seen’ by a song, but this was one of those times. It was a song that hit me so hard, it knocked the wind out of me.
That trademark Kinsella sense of humor is there—“I feel so sick—doctor, it hurts when I exist,” he sings, deadpanning, at the start of the second verse. “This isn’t the pain I’m usually in.”
We all go to dark places—some of us maybe stay there longer than others would be willing to; or longer than we should. And we all use humor as a coping mechanism to deflect attention from the real problem.
When I actually listened to “Uncomfortably Numb,” I, again, felt incredibly seen—not as severely as I had before, but the song casts an uncomfortable reflection, and for a little over four minutes, forces you to look hard into yourself.
Over an incredibly crisp sounding drum beat5, Kinsella reveals the kind of thing you would normally save for a session with your therapist—“Sensitivity deprived; I can’t feel a thing inside,” he begins, and I mean, right there, this song had me in its grips and was not going to let go—but he continues. “I blamed my father in my youth—now as a father, I blame the booze.”
Then, in the second verse, things grow even bleaker: “Sensitivity deprived; all my sympathy prescribed.”
Williams serves as Kinsella’s foil, first arriving as a ghostly voice in the second verse, then as an echo to each line in the song’s refrain, all before she takes the lead on the final verse of the song—“I’ve tried, but you’ve won; Comatose—like father, like son.”
We all go to dark places—and there are times when someone will tell you a specific song, or a whole album, really helped them get through a difficult time in their lives. A song like this…I don’t know if it’s going to ‘help’ you through anything—maybe it’s going to enable if you aren’t careful. There are comforts, however minor, in knowing that someone else in the world may feel half as awful as you do, and was able to put those thoughts to music, and if anything, hearing it played back as a reflection of all your own terrible qualities that are perpetually at risk of destroying whatever relationships you haven’t already destroyed, and it can provide you a four minute moment for contemplation.
Emo kids eventually grow up, and if you’re like me, who truly came6 to the genre late and exited it around the time I turned 21 or 22, you leave a lot of the music from that time of your life behind, and rarely think about it. There’s only a select few emo albums that you can take with you through life—and even fewer that are able to grow with you into adulthood.
I’m pushing 40, and the members of American Football are all less than a decade older than me. Even at this age, you’re still capable of teenage feelings—teenage feelings can turn into adult feelings.
On paper, ‘emo music for adults’ looks like an absolute trainwreck of an idea—and maybe a band like American Football, and an album like American Football deserves better, and more, than that. Look closer, and you’ll see an incredibly complicated, densely layered, and immensely thoughtful rumination feelings—both teenage, and adult—and a reminder that devastatingly honest music like this can serve as a response to what David Foster Wallace said once about fiction—that it’s about what it means to be a fucking human being.
1- I’m sure there are countless examples of problematic artists within the ‘emo’ genre but the two that are coming to mind immediately are Jesse Lacy from Brand New, who, shortly after the band’s final album arrived in 2017, was outed as having solicited explicit photos from underage fans during the early years of the band, among other predatory behavior; and Cameron Boucher of a newer emo outfit, Sorority Noise, who was accused of sexual assault in 2018.
2- Cap’n Jazz also, at one time, included Davey von Bohlen, who would later go on to form the beloved emo outfit The Promise Ring.
3- A Wikipedia article about the band states the house was for sale near the end of 2018.
4- A personal aside—working at the co-op is not stressful in a way that usually follows me home. I’ve been there for less than three years but my bosses seem to really like me (for some reason) and I really like the work I do, so I’ve been given more responsibility. There’s stress on the job, sure, but it’s nothing like the literal ambulance chasing I had to do when I wrote for the paper.
5- A quick shout out to the band’s producer, Jason Cupp, who manned the boards for LP2 as well—these records sound like a million bucks.
6- Another quick personal aside—I had no idea what ‘emo’ was until I was in college. However, at age 16, I bought Something to Write Home About by The Get Up Kids, as well as Nothing Feels Good and Very Emergency by The Promise Ring. I had no idea these were ‘emo’ bands; I had just heard about them from watching “120 Minutes.”
American Footbal (LP3) is out on March 22nd, available in myriad formats, via Polyvinyl.
Kevin Krein is a Minnesota based writer, and has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones since January 2013. For nearly as long, he has been an occasional contributor to Bearded Gentlemen Music. From December 2013 until its the summer of 2017, he wrote “The Bearded Life” column for the Southern Minn Scene magazine, and from the summer of 2017, until the fall of 2018, wrote “The Column of Disquiet” for The Next Ten Words. His writing also regularly appears in The Wagazine and in River Valley Woman. At the beginning of 2019, he launched the all new Anhedonic Headphones podcast, which you may subscribe to in such legitimate outlets as iTunes and Google Play.
He is a vegan, a friend to all animals, and a huge jerk toward most people.