“Where are they now?” are the first words sung by front man Mike Kinsella on American Football’s new album and they are said with obvious intention. It has been 17 years since the original eponymous album came out and it seems both the listener and the band are asking the same questions; what’s changed? What is the same? Or where are they now? Ultimately the tension that befalls this whole album is acknowledged in this first line: will this record tarnish the legacy of a band who never asked to be cult heroes.
The story surrounding this record and the band’s recent resurgence has been well documented. After writing and recording their debut as a kind of teenage throwaway just before they all started university, the band, over the course of almost two decades reached cult status. During this time the members of the band all got regular day jobs and gave up any musical career, with the exception of front man Mike Kinsella who carried on his musical endeavours as “Owen”. The album that they had recorded at 19 years old and released as a one off with a local record label was now being heralded as the pinnacle of 90’s Emo (when Emo was all about jazz inflected, wistful indie songs with jangley guitars, rather than My Chemical Romance). But it wasn’t just the face of a genre, it had transcended its musical style to become an essential album of early adulthood.
The band always seemed to react to the album’s popularity with a kind of cynical bemusement and Kinsella particularly seemed to view it as detrimental to his own newer material. But the importance of the original record is undeniable. Its cover art, which features soft light emanating from a window, is particularly evocative and its song titles like “I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional” and “The Regrets Are Killing Me” would read as parody if they weren’t so genuinely heartfelt. As a whole album it perfectly captures that long, slow, sad summer that comes as school is finished. The summer where relationships that feel momentous end and only the anxiousness of adulthood awaits. Everyone has their own such album, something that has been listened to with such depth and joy that the intricacies of every note don’t go unnoticed. Through the pleasant naivety of youth it all feels so important.
That said, it is hard to understate the effect this album has had on countless people like myself. Of course, as with any piece of art that reaches “cult” status, to be a fan of American Football felt both exclusive and communal. But more importantly, it felt intensely personal.
When in 2015 the band announced a number of comeback shows, their first activity in 17 years, I was overjoyed. Any initial worry about what this comeback could mean was quickly dashed when I got to see them live and they did live up to expectations. It was all the same songs that they’d written so many years ago, but played now by the middle aged men they had become. It was charming, it was nostalgic, in the audience there was a real sense of a shared, idealised past. It all felt very natural.
In my mind I had made a sort of assumption that they’d come back to London once a year indefinitely and I would be there each time they came, as they played all those same songs. I presumed that the sanctity of that album and this band would be always be upheld. It represented a time of my life, a certain set of emotions and I liked the idea of being able to revisit that on a whim. It was an authentic album written by a group of teenagers about teenage problems, there was no posturing or false ambition.
So when, even more recently in 2016, they announced that they would be recording new material and eventually a new album my initially positive reaction very quickly turned to anxiety. Nostalgia, I thought, perhaps doesn’t work the second time around.
Any band in such a situation is left with two choices: to try and recapture or to to try revolutionise. What American Football did is somewhere in between the two. The house that featured on the original album artwork appears again but this time it isn’t lit with the promise of early evening, instead we see the interior of the house- dusty and in shadow. It seems like American Football must have approached the project with some degree of irony and self-awareness given that the first lyric on the album that follows “where are they now?” is “both alone in the same house”. But still, the re-use of this house can serve as a metaphor for the album more generally. Again, the question asked earlier comes to mind: What has changed?
Well, lead songwriter Mike Kinsella is now almost 40, and to sing of teen romance like he once did wouldn’t seem genuine. So are the middle aged problems he touches on like dissociation in long-term relationships and a general feeling of purposeless as romantic as before? The answer is no.
As I listened to the album I was a bit overwhelmed. The songs had odd moments that echoed the aesthetic of the debut but at other moments I felt genuinely perturbed. Kinsella’s strained, sad vocal which in the debut sat so well at the back of the mix was now at the front. All the production felt so professional, it felt expensive and inauthentic. Gone was the grainy, DIY style. There wasn’t the same unpredictability in the timings and the guitar parts hardly felt intricate. But most of all, they failed to capture the same mood. Something so intangible but yet so clear when its presence is missed. Scientifically, this makes complete sense, according to psychologist Alan R. Hirsch in his report, “Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding,” nostalgia isn’t about remembering specific memories at all. Hirsh argues that nostalgia does not relate to a particular memory but rather an emotional state.
After a week of reflection I had something of a realisation. I didn’t want American Football to experiment, or to revolutionise. I wanted them to reaffirm how they had made me feel for all those nights. Nights spent with their record turning, as I went about the uniquely adolescent challenge of defining oneself. The years between 15 and 20 are formative in that you establish your identity, what makes you who you are. The music you listen to through this period becomes part of that identity, it is part of your self-image. To listen to American Football and hear the similarities in the new album was comforting but equally to hear any subtle difference was jarring. It was not just the music , it was my sense of self that was being challenged. Again, the neuroscience behind this proves interesting. As we listen to a song which holds with it significant personal memories our prefrontal cortex is activated. This effect is heightened massively in our teenage years as our brains undergo important development and growth. In this way, the music which had great emotional resonance during this period will forever be etched, neurologically onto our brains.
So on the shoulders of American Football and on the shoulders of any such band with far reaching influence rests, rather unfairly, part of the identity of hundreds and thousands of fans. Because, as it turns out, the beauty and comfort of nostalgia cannot ever be reproduced. As it was expressed by philosopher Neel Burton- “Although beauty itself is eternal in its recurrence, its particular manifestations are unique and special because they cannot in themselves be either preserved or recreated”.
Ultimately, the beauty of American Football’s debut, released almost two decades ago, lies not in the music at all, but in its uniqueness. It will never and should never be recreated. And just as I will never be 18 again, equally, I will never have my identity so acutely defined by music.
Accepting that, so it seems, is part of growing up.
words by Jamie Cameron
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