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Original release date: 14 September 1999
Label: Polyvinyl

Never has a genre been so adored yet so widely maligned and misunderstood as emo. Dismissed as too naive and self-indulgently confessional to be taken seriously, its key players have often been overlooked and misrepresented by the same critics who venerated their self-serious contemporaries in post-punk and alt-rock. It’s hard to think of a genre tag so quickly rejected by almost all of its purveyors – bands and fans alike.

This does a great disservice to the sheer wealth of innovative guitar music created by artists operating (often reluctantly) under its mantle – among them, American Football. Formed in Urbana, Illinois, founding members Mike Kinsella, Steve Holmes and Steve Lamos came together for a brief period in the late 90s to create a singular album that documented the raw drama of young adulthood.

At first glance, American Football might seem like a prototypical emo album. It’s a coming-of-age record – an attempt for lead singer and guitarist Kinsella to process and come to terms with those pesky “teenage feelings, and their meanings” (Honestly?). It helped that the recording process took place in the final few days before the group finished college, imbuing the album with a bittersweet sense of finality. Not least in the reminders of how new beginnings also mean painful endings. Add in the tongue-in-cheek band name and the artwork, an evocative image of an unremarkable suburban family home, and the record seems to embody the near-universal experience of small-town Americans moving from adolescence to adulthood. So far, so familiar.

But unlike many records of the genre, American Football has an unusually experimental musicality to it. The members came from hardcore backgrounds – so why does American Football sounds almost nothing like it? As with many of emo’s early adopters, Kinsella had been supplementing his teenage listening habits with “super sad shit” like the Smiths and the Cure, while drummer Lamos was heavily into jazz. Steve Reich was another unlikely reference point, and his influence can instantly be heard in the phasing, open-ended guitar loops that drive the record. Lamos had also been getting into Miles Davis, hence the warbling trumpet on album closer The One With the Wurlitzer. And while many of their contemporaries were still content with delivering catchy, three-chord hooks through overdriven speakers, Kinsella and second guitarist Holmes were busy studying alternative tuning and time signatures.

The result of this studied approach is an album that sounds at once meticulously crafted yet endearingly off-the-cuff. The first few seconds of album opener Never Meant capture the in-studio sound of the band limbering up – but the complex guitarwork and crisp drum beat that follows feels polished and well-rehearsed. Likewise, instrumental interlude You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon could almost be mistaken for an improvised ad lib if it weren’t for the impeccably-executed time signature shifts that occur at regular intervals.

Throughout the record, American Football reject standard verse-chorus-verse structures in favour of something more free-flowing, closer to jazz than hardcore. Tracks unfold slowly and linearly, providing time and space for melodic motifs to grow and crescendo in loose and unexpected ways. Fan favourite Honestly? starts with an initially straightforward guitar riff,  but then reveals uneven metres, looping and switching at unpredictable points.

On release, American Football found moderate success on college radio but nothing more. As agreed, the band members finished college and went their separate ways. By all accounts, the album seemed destined to remain an obscure relic of the Midwest emo scene. However, through word-of-mouth, the band’s fanbase steadily grew. Polyvinyl co-founder Matt Lunsford described the album’s uptake as “a constant climb upwards”, recalling that American Football “just kept organically being discovered by people, and then inspiring people and inspiring bands, and then being rediscovered”.

Then, in 2014, the unimaginable happened: the band reformed for a string of shows to mark the album’s reissue. A world tour followed, and then – incredibly – a pair of critically-acclaimed follow-up LPs, both simply titled: American Football.

Fast forward to 2022, and the emos are at it again. With Pitchfork-approved advocates like Phoebe Bridgers, Billie Eillish and Alex G on side, the influence of bands like American Football is finally being recognised. Emo is now a badge worn proudly, and American Football stands as irrefutable proof that unashamedly emotional music can be complex and intelligent too. A new generation of listeners has emerged with an openness and willingness to explore and share their inner worlds – and to them, American Football will be a friend.