Before there was an emo revival, there was emo, and after there was emo, there was something else that many people called emo though it was clearly something else that sold their merchandise at Hot Topic. Somewhere emo became a superlative and a catchall that could mean or include in its meaning the act of being emotional, or simply being alternative, or having tattoos, or actually being punk, or wearing bright makeup, or singing while you scream, or screaming while you sing. Emo could refer to songs without choruses, or hell, maybe even choruses without songs. And any band with three words for a name was obviously an emo band.
Jokes aside, one of the other staples of emo has been the name Kinsella. It belongs to three brothers, and the Kinsellas managed to take part in a number of influential and respected bands from the mid-’90s through the present. Mike Kinsella, though, might be the most important, as he played a part in Cap n’ Jazz, Joan of Arc, his current project Owen, and the great American Football. Like many blink-and-you-missed-them projects, American Football’s reputation has lasted because along with the Kinsella pedigree, devout fans refuse to stop heralding their greatness 15 years after they released their only LP.
Now, American Football is reissuing a deluxe version of the eponymous LP, plus playing a few concerts this fall. Emo can be a crapshoot when it comes to how it ages, with some bands like Sunny Day Real Estate or At the Drive-In arguably sounding just as relevant today, while the Promise Ring or Dashboard Confessional don’t receive nearly the same reverence when discussed.
American Football aligns with the former, but not because of hooks or particularly affecting individual songs, but because of the creativity in the project’s conception. Taking the thin vocals of Pavement, the sensitivity of Morrissey and the time signatures and intricacy of Chavez and The Dismemberment Plan, American Football was a hybrid of great taste, and while the endeavor didn’t prove to be terribly popular or so great it was emulated particularly closely by others, the indie music scene’s past is punctuated with these special little albums that stand up to time and exist in their own universe, on their own terms.
But a band never meant to continue on possibly knows its fate, displayed on lead song “Never Meant,” the album’s powerful thesis that approaches post-rock despite its love of the sad trumpet, played by drummer Steve Lamos. “There were some things that were said, like we never meant. not to be overly dramatic, I just think it’s best, because you can’t miss what you forget.” Fortunately, we have not forgotten American Football, and like many great bands that burnt out too quickly, we do miss them—or at least regret not having more music from them. Maybe this little reunion is a step towards that. We can hope.
Besides the reissue, it’s hard not to recall American Football this month, with the trumpets and other horns turning up on albums from Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Sharon Van Etten and The Antlers. “The Summer Ends” and “The One with the Wurlitzer” brought unexpected horns to the table long ago, and the songs would rest comfortably with all of these artists, unlike much of what we’d typically brand as “emo.” American Football is an album that ultimately defies genre classification, as so many of the best ones do. The album serves as what indie rock should be about, synthesizing the musical world around us, not dividing and separating.