American Football’s lone album opens with the sound of disaster: a jumble of arpeggiated guitar, a messy drum fill, and then a voice in the distance calling out, “We ready?” The garbled noise that introduces “Never Meant” wasn’t American Football’s attempt to misrepresent its skills; it’s merely the product of three University Of Illinois students chronicling their time together before they moved away and the band ended. But, regardless of what American Football’s goals actually were, its debut album would go on to revitalize the emo underground, becoming a go-to reference for young, underground bands for the next decade-plus.
At the time of American Football’s release, emo’s second wave had been going strong for a few years, due in large part to the work of band member Mike Kinsella with Cap’n Jazz, but it had always been combustibly aggressive due to the style’s close links to post-hardcore. American Football shared those influences, but having studied the quiet pontifications of Mark Kozelek’s Red House Painters, Kinsella and Steve Holmes used their dual guitars to offer reprieve from the agitated nature of the group’s peers. Though American Football never had a proper bass player, Kinsella recorded bass tracks for the album, offering drummer Steve Lamos another way to link his commanding shuffles to the band’s subtle approach.
American Football’s opening track, “Never Meant,” would be Kinsella’s introduction as a frontman. (His previous attempt in The One Up Downstairs had its lone release shelved until the mid-2000s.) Lamos’ polyrhythmic drumming quickly becomes the setting upon which the song, and in many ways the band, establishes itself. When Kinsella finally lets the words pour out in “Never Meant,” they project a paradox, one he’d come to expound upon in his solo project Owen. His delivery was hushed, with words sounding as if they struggled to project past his lips, but what he said carried a massive, wounded weight. His lyrics dance between the direct and the obtuse, and it’s this kind of juggling of ideologies that makes American Football unto itself.
Nearly every song on American Football set a standard for the next decade of emo. Whether with the lyrically resonant “I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional” or instrumental closer “The One With The Wurlitzer,” American Football launched many imitators, yet it has remained largely unmatched due to the skill set of the group’s three members. Each track sets a new precedent for breakup songs, but the music’s bend toward math rock keeps it from merely moping. The occasional trumpet blasts insert a jazz inspiration that had been lacking in the genre, and the manner with which the trio executes the brass keeps the sounds from feeling like parts of a messy music school thesis.
Though its lifespan was short, American Football left a few unreleased odds and ends, which, after being unearthed, make up the second disc of this deluxe edition. This loose conglomeration of practice sessions, live tracks, and album demos offers a glimpse into the band’s creative process, and proves that, even in its gestational stage, the band had a fully formed ideology. “Untitled #3” and “The 7’s” are sprawling instrumentals that demonstrate the band wasn’t relying on studio trickery to achieve its robust sounds, as its members play off one another for minutes on end without ever losing sight of a song’s goals. These songs are as strong as the material that actually made the album, proving this bonus material is as relevant as the album itself.
Beyond offering a look at the band in its rawest form, these tracks also serve to humanize the band. Where American Football features flawless representations of the songs the trio created, here the group can be seen occasionally faltering, reminding listeners that Kinsella, Holmes, and Lamos were just college kids playing around. After a series of daring fills during the midpoint of “Untitled #3,” Lamos finally loses control, stumbling on the snare for a few seconds before regaining control. The guitars dance around it, not allowing this gaffe to alter the song’s course, displaying that the others would be able to carry the trio through even if a member faltered. Kinsella takes it a step further on live track “The 7’s” when he attempts to implode the song as it nears its end. Specifically, when he throws in the chunky riff to Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl,” but the two Steves carry on unfazed, never missing a beat. This brief offering shows, despite the legacy it would build, American Football wasn’t taking emo too seriously, something that would become all too common in its wake.
Fifteen years on, American Football has cemented its place as one of emo’s most influential acts. Like Rites Of Spring in the genre’ first wave, American Football proved that a brief existence doesn’t preclude a band from casting a long shadow. American Football has always been essential listening, and this deluxe reissue gives the package a nice face-lift, unearthing recordings previously lost to time, and offering up the Urbana house that adorns the cover as both a destination and the inspiration. The band may not have been ready when it first hit record and started in on “Never Meant,” but that lack of foresight has kept American Football honest and continually resonant.