In 2016, American Football had to relearn how to be a band. Surrounded by belated critical praise and an intense fandom, the beloved emo act reunited after a 15-year-long absence to record their sophomore album, a record that aimed to recreate their original blend of confessional lyrics and gentle math rock. But in doing so, all four members realized there was much more to explore — but they had to be patient.
During the years that followed, all four members — singer and guitarist Mike Kinsella, guitarist Steve Holmes, drummer and horn player Steve Lamos, and bassist Nate Kinsella — began trading demos, slowly building off one another’s ideas from afar until a pattern appeared: slower pacing, extended outros, and less chaos. This modern iteration of American Football has one foot in Midwestern emo and another in lush dream pop. The result is American Football, the band’s third album, out March 22nd on Polyvinyl.
“We’re not 23-year-old petulant kids now,” says Mike Kinsella over the phone. “We’re adults making concessions, and you appreciate what everyone is doing. If there’s something cool happening at the end, let’s ride it out. Let’s add a children’s choir, or vibraphones, or ringing bells. You can’t deny how long the songs are, but you’ll miss stuff if you turn it off.”
American Football reintroduced themselves on Wednesday with “Silhouettes,” the album’s lead single and opening track. Isolated bells chime like an iPhone alarm in the dead of night — and a wave of guitars follows suit, intermixing hypnotically over the course of seven minutes, in a mellowed take on math rock dizziness.
Kinsella points to unreleased eight-minute-long track, “Doom In Full Bloom,” as a similar example of their technique. “It starts with that cool guitar solo,” he says. “Instead of wasting that, we reprise it and jam on it. It’s like slaughtering a whole animal and using every piece of it instead of just the prime bits.”
The band’s made obvious and intentional strides towards maturation — first by ditching the infamous suburban house in Urbana, Illinois, which served as the focal point of their previous album art — as well as their decision to axe the more predictable “American Football-style songs” from the track list. Yet nowhere is their evolution more apparent than in Kinsella’s lyrics: He replaces his old diaristic tendencies with open-ended poetry about parenthood, generational emotions, and the strangeness of aging in a typically youth-oriented genre. “It’s almost like I’m proud that I’m a grown man, that I’m a dad,” he laughs.
While the band’s third American Football LP continues the tradition of self-titled album names, it breaks ground with its use of guest vocalists. Land of Talk vocalist Elizabeth Powell sings in French for a few verses, Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams shares the stage in a back-and-forth duet, and Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell supplies goosebump-inducing harmonies. The fact that all three agreed to contribute, according to the band, still feels surreal.
“Those were our top three picks from the start,” says Nate Kinsella. “I did a rough track of me singing Hayley’s part, which sounds like dogs dying compared to what she did with it. She killed it. They all killed it. It was way better than I ever could have expected it to be. And that’s ideally what happens when you bring in a new voice. They bring things you can’t bring yourself, and it’s a surprising, amazing thing when it gets pulled off.”
Longtime fans may be caught off guard by American Football’s new sound, but the band themselves are grateful they even tried.
“This band shouldn’t even be happening right now,” says Mike Kinsella. “It’s awesome we got the chance to turn it into this iteration at all.”