This is a tricky review to write, there are no two ways about it. Your enjoyment of this album is entirely contingent upon the expectations you have of it upon entering. Die hard American Football fans, starved of a second album for 15 years, might end up wishing that LP3 took a similar length of time to come to fruition, but here we are.
To understand why LP3 is such a complex addition to American Football's discography, we need to consider the landscape that the band themselves have created, and the expectations that come with that. It all started in 1999 with LP1, an (at the time) daring blend of emo and post rock, two genres which seemed like unlikely bedfellows, but Mike Kinsella, Steve Holmes and Steve Lamos made it seem natural.
Then they broke up. The experiment paid off, so the three went their separate ways and that, it seemed, was that. Up until 2014 when, practically out of the blue they reunited, bolstered their numbers with Nate Kinsella, and gracing us with LP2 – an album which the band themselves refer to as "[them] figuring it out". It was an album that, again in their own words, "wasn't quite done...there was still more".
Fast forward to 2019, and LP3 is upon us – an album that is so familiar, yet so alien at the same time. The same producer at the helm in Jason Cupp, and even the same recording studio – Nebraska's Arc Studios. So what, exactly, were they figuring out? And has it worked?
The answer to that, as I say, depends almost entirely on what your expectations of an American Football album are, if indeed you have any at all. To answer those questions in reverse order – it has worked. Technically speaking, at least. But what were they figuring out? Well, the band's trajectory from this point onwards, it seems.
We start with ‘Silhouettes’, a whistle stop tour of LP3's new vision for American Football. An understated xylophone and marimba introduction gives way to a sweeping orchestral swell, supported by the twinkling guitar we have come to expect from the four-piece. It's confident. A show opener, if I ever heard one. Mike Kinsella's voice, as always, drifts above the composition – ethereal but omnipresent. It's longer than it needs to be, perhaps, but the instrumentation is tight enough to comfortably envelop you for its seven-minute duration.
‘Silhouettes’ quite seamlessly transitions to ‘Every Wave To Ever Rise’ – adding a noodley guitar riff ringing throughout, and introducing the dulcet tones of Land of Talk's Elizabeth Powell, singing entirely in French. ‘Every Wave…' is a bittersweet track, bringing us slowly back to Earth after the warm optimistic sound of the first track. The instrumentation breaks down at several points to reveal the more intimate compositions we are used to from American Football – but these moments are fleeting, and not always tremendously well utilised. That said, the last minute and half of the track is such a beautiful transition into unbridled post rock that I wished the rest of the song was more like it, or that they continued riding that train more elegantly into the next song – which starts somewhat abruptly otherwise. An album built for the seamless transitions of vinyl as opposed to the sharp cuts of streaming, this is not.
Which brings us to ‘Uncomfortably Numb’, arguably the headline single from LP3. I will never have a bad word said about Hayley Williams' voice. However, I must admit seeing her name on the tracklisting for LP3 raised an eyebrow, to say the least. While her collaborations in the past have made sense – her pairing with CHVRCHES' Lauren Mayberry on ‘Bury It’ made perfect sense. The two are strong and unique enough as vocalists that they can happily spar to outstanding effect within the confines of CHVRCHES' signature synths. But with Mike Kinsella? Would that even work? Turns out I'd been doing Williams a disservice. The harmonies between the two on ‘Uncomfortably Numb’ are so beautiful, so smooth, I've been thinking about it daily since I first heard the single. It's particularly the shared note in the two words "less obvious" at 1:56 that gets the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end every single time, and I can't even explain why. I realise my comments have been have been almost entirely about Williams thus far, but she has such a consistent ability to dominate over any track that she's in – it's a wonder to see her exercise such restraint here. This is one of the songs that made the greatest impression on me, but it's so far divorced from American Football as we have come to know them, that it feels like sacrilege to even admit I like it as much as I do. It's more Death Cab for Cutie than American Football, which might make or break LP3 for you.
Who ever thought they'd hear flute playing on an American Football song? Who thought they'd ever hear American Football punctuating a song with a children's choir? I certainly didn't, but in ‘Heir Apparent’, you will hear both of these things. This is a song that, perhaps, indicates what the vision of LP3 could have been overall. In terms of potent, downtempo and brooding emo, ‘Heir Apparent’ is practically stadium rock. We've gone big budget here, and dare I say, mainstream? This is all strictly in comparison to American Football's previous albums, mind you, but this is certainly food for thought.
But ‘Heir Apparent’ is less of a turning point in LP3, or rather, a track that comes across as workings out, leading up to ‘Doom In Full Bloom’. ‘Doom…’ is the stand out track on LP3 by far, marrying the crisp guitar of LP1 and LP2 with the brass and fuller instrumentation of LP3. This is the song it feels like the band were working towards, the artistic itch they still needed to scratch. It's a song that borders on full instrumental, with vocals that steadily become more and more insistent as the track goes on, but only as sporadic lines, never dense verses. ‘Doom In Full Bloom’ crystallises everything the band were working towards. If the rest of the album was as good as this, I wouldn't have been as careful tempering expectations going into this review.
‘Mine To Miss’ is another highlight, though Kinsella's voice is a little too clear – sitting at odds with the mixing elsewhere on the album. It's too sharp, too immediate here compared to what we've heard, not just in LP1 and LP2, but through the rest of LP3 too. ‘I Can't Feel You’ is worth mentioning too, though only as the least successful of the three collaborations in total throughout LP3. Much though I like Slowdive, I'm not sure Rachel Goswell's voice works quite as well with Kinsella's as Hayley Williams or Elizabeth Powell's do in their respective tracks. "I'm fluent in subtlety" is an entertainingly knowing line to include, however – acknowledging the occasionally vague ebb and flow of Kinsella's lyrics, which have always sat at odds with histrionic lyrical expectations of the emo genre.
If LP1 and LP2 are autumnal in their tones, themes and sound, LP3 is spring – specifically an, in all likelihood, bitingly cold spring morning. In my head, there is condensation spilling from Kinsella's mouth with every exhalation in this album. It's a beautiful album, an American Football album you could put on without someone raising an eyebrow, or complaining about bringing their mood down. It is also the most accessible American Football have ever been, which may break your heart, or make it swell a tenfold Grinchian swell – it very much depends on your expectations of the band at this point. There is a clarity to the sound of LP3, which is almost ironic given how layered the sound of even the more stripped back tracks on the album are.
Depending on who you are, LP3 might be the perfect introduction to the cult of American Football. If you are already well versed in the hymn sheet, this might be a Marmite album. But I know which side of the fence I sit on.
American Football (LP3) will be released on 22 March 2019 via Big Scary Monsters.