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Courtesy of Polyvinyl Record Co.

March 24, 2019

TEST SPIN | American Football — ‘American Football III’

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The story of American Football is its own legend within the emo community. They formed as seniors in college, released an album in 1999, played 12 shows, then broke up. Their self titled debut American Football flew under the radar initially, but quietly grew in influence over time to the point where it’s the clearest genre-defining album within the emo community, headlining the rise of midwestern emo and math rock.

This album had every reason to flop. After all, American Football pioneered midwestern emo, a subgenre that’s recently resurfaced in terms of influence, almost two decades ago and then left it untouched for 17 years. When they returned with American Football II, it often felt like a bad mixture of nostalgia and half-hearted attempts to innovate. American Football III makes it clear that this was just a temporary issue necessary to readjust. For starters, they abandon the now-iconic house that made up the covers of their first two albums, a clear sign that they aren’t holding onto past pretenses.

The album begins with “Silhouettes,” a seven-minute track based on loops and progressive add-ins. It begins as a break from the original American Football sound through its use of bells in the intro, which is vaguely reminiscent of fellow 1999 emo pioneers Jimmy Eat World’s “A Sunday.” Once the rest of the instruments are added and the first verse begins, it sounds like a more mature version of the American Football you know and love.

American Football III sees American Football build off their signature math rock while still seamlessly incorporating new sounds. “Heir Apparent” is one of the best examples of this. It sounds like a classic American Football track through its trademark guitar loops but now works in a flute and some distant piano notes to prove that the last 20 years have allowed them to grow outside of making music in their bedroom.

When I first saw the tracklisting of American Football III, I was worried; “Uncomfortably Numb” contains a feature from Paramore’s Hailey Williams. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a great artist and singer but in a lot of ways, this feels beyond out of place on an American Football project. It mixes midwestern emo with Paramore’s pop emo, two subgenres that are often at odds with each other both stylistically and in terms of their fanbases. This is also the first American Football project to contain features, yet they’re all used exceptionally. “I Can’t Feel You” contains a feature from Rachel Goswell of Slowdive. The band has always felt tangentially similar to shoegaze, and Goswell’s echoey chorus blends perfectly in this track with the reverb-heavy guitar in the background.

One criticism often levied at American Football is that although their music is incredibly emotional and nostalgic, their lyrics are still distant and impersonal. American Football III is the first attempt to really address this issue. “Uncomfortably Numb” details the struggles of fatherhood and alcoholism with lyrics such as “I used to blame my father in my youth/Now as a father I blame the booze” and “I used to struggle in my youth/Now I’m used to struggling for two.” In a sense, this is just the band growing up. Their debut album was recorded when they were seniors in college, they’re all in their forties now and lead singer Mike Kinsella has children.

Usually, saying that a band has grown up is a bad thing, particularly within a genre so lyrically dominated by teenage emotions and nostalgia. American Football was once great at this style, but they matured. This is usually when bands fall off, but American Football’s ability to pivot and create another fantastic album 20 years later with entirely different subject matter is proof that they’re a band like no other.

Daniel Moran is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at dmoran@cornellsun.com.