Review Summary: Some things never change; maybe that's okay.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard American Football because, like, you don’t forget the halcyon summer before you depart your home city and go to university. You’re ***ing around with your friends, experimenting with/upgrading to B-Class substances, chain-smoking -- a newly acquired habit -- in your girlfriend's car while you talk about how *** it is that no-one else understands Lolita the way you two do, and those scholarship results are coming any day now, and you haven’t mustered up the courage to tell her you’re moving to a new city and one day a friend who has the emotional range of a desiccated deer carcass pulls you aside after one too many gins and tells you, ***, he’s going to miss you man and you hug for the first time. Everything is tinged with that bittersweet glow.
So what better soundtrack than American Football. People talk about music entering their life at serendipitous times and this is the most auspicious meeting of temporal circumstance and specific musical evocation i’ve experienced. The lush guitars twinkle reassuringly, though they are not assured. The lyrics confess everything you want to say. The trumpet line in ‘The Summer Ends’ captures everything about that wistful, youthful time better than anything.
But even during these naive, post-adolescent times I suspected the effect would be ephemeral. “Part of what makes this album so enthralling,” I wrote in a never-published review at the time, “is knowing that it won’t be permanent, that i might listen to it 5 years and wonder what the fuss is about. This mortality, or used-by-date, gives it all the more charm and makes it important to listen to while I can.”
The prose is turgid; the thesis was incorrect. Some things never change. Maybe that’s O.K.
2016 has been a hell of a year. Leave aside the prospect of a fascistic presidency in the land of the free, the constant reduction of Islam into some sort of geopolitical signifier of unrest and barbarism, a mass shooting at a place where I, and many of my queer compatriots, learned to feel safe, a sacred site, that prisoners still can’t ***ing vote in New Zealand, and let’s talk about what’s important: me.
A five-year long relationship dissolved into the ether, meaning I had to negotiate not just losing a partner but my best friend (that’s one thing no-one tells you about growing up: losing friends is harder than losing lovers). I have a proper job for the first time in my life, in the field i love, but turns out joining a multi-national media conglomerate requires you to -- well, i haven’t sold my soul, but my integrity is in overdraft. There’ve been girls, and, yes, there have been a smattering of boys. Some of them i’ve hurt, some of them i’ve been hurt by. Too frequently it was the former, leaving me wondering, like, how many people do you have to ruin before you feel self-worth? I’ve had anxiety attacks in the bed of a one-night stand, in work bathrooms, in the privacy of my shower. I miss my dog.
You know that implacable, intangible feeling when you’re overcome by a feeling that something isn’t quite right, that this isn’t your life but you’re an imposter, that you’re not supposed to be on this path? I feel that quite a lot.
Isn’t it funny that, in a life of rapid musical consumption, things that thrilled and seemed knew quickly get consigned to a nostalgic comfort listen. Apologies for pirouetting, but a month ago Alfred Schnittke’s seventh Penitential Psalm, the way he created a whole universe before bringing it sweeping down in humility before his Creator, moved me to tears each time I heard it. Now I still adore it, but that immediacy is gone. That’s a pretty renowned piece of music, and it’s been two months -- how do i keep finding textures and nuances in American Football that move me like it’s my first listen, glued to a youtube clip, all over again? It’s not that the album is comforting -- it is -- but it somehow retains an allure that few albums do.
A new American Football, seventeen years after their epochal titular album became the de facto to sad boys with a penchant for melody and harmonics. But what rubric is there for measuring a long-delayed -- and honestly (heh) largely unawaited -- sophomore albums quality when the debut means so much to you? I thought the impact of American Football would be diluted more and more each passing year until the whole shebang but The One with the Wurlitzer has been the coda to many comfy-sad nights since I was 17. I’ve written essays while repeating “I’ll see you when we’re both not so emotional”. And don’t even get me started on Stay Home. It’s tattooed into my personal canon.
But, so: the new American Football begins, and it launches with anthemic stadium-rock with twinkles but you kinda like it? Where are we now indeed, marinating in a baste of twentysomething ennui, no longer wondering where everything went wrong; a statement, in any event, of the way the album will differ from its predecessor. The following track is an antithesis of the first, providing the only track on the album that wouldn’t have felt out of place on their debut: “with my nerves exposed / I can’t say no” and, yes, it’s a credo to a year of cock-ups and stupid decisions and it resonates and how ***ing good is that pivot to a lush, simple, evocative instrumental at the 2:30 mark and everything aligns and i get that big ***-eating grin and yes, yes, I like it.
It says 4.5 on the tin, up there by the review, but I’ve articulated the fraught difficulties of forcing something so personal, so aptly resonant, into a tidy 1-5 evaluation scheme. Do the lyrics trespass from earnest to trite? Certainly, though in a year where Bon Iver’s incomprehensible -- and honestly meaningless -- lyrics are lauded the directness and lack of pretense is actually refreshing. The mixing is poor, with lackluster vocals foregrounded? True, but it also gives the subtle rhythmic percussion a chance to breath and groove. The instrumentals are as tight and moving as ever. Not enough instrumental passages? Definitely, I concede, but how hard is it to focus on the music? And, as “Everyone is Dressed Up” evidences, the haunting trumpet lines that cut straight through your arch glib defenses are back.
What I’m saying is that for every conceivable flaw in this record, it finds a way of atoning. The dreary 1-2 whimper of ‘Give me the Gun’ and ‘I need a drink’ (although the former has some fascinating percussion work that salvages it from mediocrity) is counter-pointed by Desire gets in the way (single material if ever i heard it) and the poignant pragmatism of Everyone is dressed up -- “wild nights when we were younger / thought we’d live forever / at least we’ll die together” isn’t just a lovely line but a thesis statement. American Football have grown up, and so have we. If you’re lucky, like me, it’s happened in glorious tandem.
American Football has, again, appeared when I needed it most. It’s not a tonic twentysomething life, the disaffection and disillusionment, but a reflection of it through a sun-dappled body of water. I babysit my ex’s kid sometimes, and she’ll stay for a vodka on the porch and we’ll talk about what could have been for her. The friend who confessed his fondness for me got my name tattooed on him when I left. I haven’t seen him in three years.
The ghosts in the corner of my room know what I sleep in. So do American Football.