Thursday, February 7th, 2019

American Football ft. Hayley Williams – Uncomfortably Numb



Vikram Joseph: On American Football’s 1999 debut album (and, for some 17 years thereafter, their only album), laconic, meandering guitar lines intertwined and diverged, set against a pillowy backdrop of woozy horns and jazz-tinged percussion; Mike Kinsella’s vocals drifted in and out like conversation through patches of broken sleep, feeling more like another instrument than a driving force for the song. The songs were rarely streamlined, but in their soft drift they captured, with heart-stopping precision, something ephemeral and intangible — sunlit fields and slow dusks, an essence of youth and summer. “Uncomfortably Numb” is the Before Midnight to the Before Sunrise of their early songs: older, harder, burdened with regrets and worn down by disappointment. It’s more conventionally structured than any other American Football song, borne on a crisp, clean, cyclical Plans-era Death Cab guitar line, and some of Kinsella’s lyrics (not always his strongest suit, and better as hazy evocation rather than narrative) are a little on-the-nose (“I blamed my father in my youth/now as a father, I blame the booze”). But it builds a melancholy beauty all the same, Kinsella’s voice interweaving with that of Hayley Williams in the flickering chorus; “The lessons are so much less obvious the further you get from home,” rings awfully true. The solutions don’t present themselves so easily when the issues get this hard to unravel.

Iris Xie: How does one capture the sadness and tenderness at inevitable breakdowns, and the connected hope and sorrow that ties together such tragedy? Through a production that imitates the warmth of moving amongst muted pastel clouds, for muddled psyches and safe spaces. The creation of the space, which facilitates and echoes the depth of the relationship and their connected interiorities, is conveyed through the glowing guitars, patient drums, soft harmonizing, and evocative but hazy lyrics, and sets the environment for a simultaneous warmth and distancing, with endless compassion. There is this beautiful sound in the background where I can’t tell whether it’s one of the singers slowly humming in the back, or it is a gently played horn, but it is chilling in conveying their not telepathic, but almost as connected, thoughts, even from a distance. When their voices overlap, they glimmer. As Williams sings over his monologue, it results in an incredibly succinct expression of their struggles: “Now I’m used to struggling (tied to a contortionist)/for two”; his last two words are swallowed, giving an impression that he may only be starting to come to terms with how he is hurting for both him and his inner child, while she understands too well what is occurring as an outsider. This conveys clarity in what level of disaster is occurring, as he continues to turn away from home. Unfortunately, there lies the familiar tale to many womxn-identified folks, because Williams’s POV remains at home, frustrated and exhausted after her sacrifice. They echo as they distance: “I just want you home/I’ll make new friends/In the ambulance.” The instrumentals empty out to a lingering, uncertain optimism, and complete this quiet hush of family tragedy. There are no harsh disasters here — just the slow, ebbing progression towards the rock bottom, from which up is the only way to go.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: As I get older, I find myself far more attuned to the melancholic music of singer-songwriters written in adulthood than in youth. That’s partially because so many of these earlier albums — from Down Colorful Hill to Songs About Leaving to American Football’s debut — defined my teenage years, but also because they featured incredibly overt depictions of angst and malaise. American Football’s music post-reunion is far less insular, and with their aging band members comes a more precise portrait of my current life: one characterized by the ability to function in the real world despite persistent, unceasing depression. In other words, the emotions here are palpable because they’re less flashy — after all, histrionic melodrama will only draw attention to one’s own childishness, and we’re all trying to avoid that, right? With “Uncomfortably Numb,” Mike Kinsella finally makes the song I’ve always wanted him to make. On “Bad News” and “Ugly on the Inside,” he delivered harrowing diatribes against friends that I personally read as songs written for himself (this line of thinking being an obvious projection of my own self-hatred). But here, he enlists Paramore’s Hayley Williams to take on the role of a wife who’s hurt by his decisions. Her topline is unmistakably Kinsella’s (the “clear”/”see-through” line being a dead ringer for his lyrical style), so this track does give the semblance of Kinsella addressing himself, but I’m mostly reminded of conversations I’ve had with my sister; my parents never quite understood or acknowledged my depression, so my sister was the only family member who was evidently concerned about my mental health. But after years of my sister dealing with me, I understand that if she ever caught me in the worst of states again, there would be this mix of pain and compassion and tiredness that Hayley so effortlessly captures here. Her feature is doubly affecting because she represents a generation of emo bands that came after American Football’s, highlighting how Kinsella is still succumbing to these habits and mindsets perpetuated by depression. The twinkling guitars and winding drums act to remind listeners of why it can be so hard to break free; the instrumentation is as pretty as anything on the 1999 debut, but it’s also incredibly familiar, incredibly safe. When depressive thoughts and actions feel like the warp and weft of your being — the typical non-solution to dealing with hardship or success or anything at all — it’s easy to default to such a mode of living, even when the numbness is uncomfortable.

Iain Mew: As a dad who just lost my dad, I’m doing the mental equivalent of holding my hand in front of my face to avoid looking at this directly. Except it’s all so gentle, nothing but chiming charm, that it’s more like the recent time that the sunlight through my office window was perfectly lined up with the corner of my eye but I couldn’t even see it there, just notice that my eyes kept watering.

Thomas Inskeep: Never have heard them before, this is American Football, the supposedly legendary emo band? Because “Uncomfortably Numb” sounds uncomfortably like a soft Jason Mraz song. Emo as Adult Contemporary in 2019: who knew?

Jonathan Bradley: The first time I heard the word “emo” was from the tracklist of Blink-182’s Dude Ranch; they had named one of their songs this because it sounded a bit like Jimmy Eat World. I didn’t know that then, so I got on to a search engine through my high school’s computer lab — school had internet, unlike home — and AltaVista or Ask Jeeves wondered if I might be looking for Emo Philips. Or maybe an emu? Blink’s intentions remained occluded for a few more years until I caught a chance airing of a Get Up Kids song on the radio, which led me to SongMeanings’ deconstructions of Sunny Day Real Estate and early Pitchfork pans of The Promise Ring. Then the girl in my drama class with the cool hair who changed her name told me I had to listen to Death Cab because “Photo Booth” was “the most emo song ever.” At a time when music gleamed with such bright intention — even the “alternative” acts of the time, like Korn or Green Day, performed in spit-polished block capitals — these foreign bands I glimpsed through newly connected dial-up sounded like nothing else: they could be muted, they could be unhewn, they could be obtuse. They were American, but a model of Americanness that was unknowable in Australia then. They were always, in a way mass culture seemed to discourage, unfailingly and embarrassingly earnest. I never heard American Football in 1999; we had the internet at home, but my precious download quota was spent, by chance, on Braid and Texas is the Reason. Hearing the shivering guitar tendrils of “Uncomfortably Numb” now, with its calm and studied drum figures, drops me vividly back into those days. Mike Kinsella’s plain voice arcs modestly over the fussiness, melding at times indistinguishably with that of his stylistic successor Hayley Williams, and maybe its only beautiful in the context of the late 20th century. But no; it is beautiful now, too.

Will Rivitz: “I’ll never forget the first time I heard American Football because, like, you don’t forget the halcyon summer before you depart your home city and go to university,” begins a review of the band’s reunion LP three years ago, and I think that’s pretty on the mark for how people about my age consume and relate to this kind of emo. So much of its appeal is a nostalgia for times we were too young to know when they were happening and, a few years after that, a nostalgia for that nostalgia, the age at which this was the music punching our collective gut. It’s weird and a little difficult to articulate: there’s something comforting about looking back at other young adults when you yourself were one, understanding that, despite differences in musical diets and environments and technology and what have you, a college-aged guitar virtuoso is probably going to have the same sorts of fears you do. That, I think, is what makes emo’s particular nostalgia so powerful; as late-teenaged walking and talking existential crises, we found solace in looking back. We learned that the late-teenaged walking and talking existential crises of a few decades back both captured how we felt with stunning accuracy and, often, made it through alive, helping us feel both less alone and less desolate. Even nostalgia has its limits, though, and though there’s no obvious line to demarcate absolutely everything that can be contained in emo’s resonant power, it seems reasonable to conclude that Hoobastank is not one of those things.

Will Adams: Wisely restrained, dreamy but devastating, and generally pleasant to hear. At least during the moments it doesn’t remind me of “The Reason.”

Tim de Reuse: The only good things about American Football’s post-reunion material have been the parts that kinda sound like they could’ve been written back in the nineties, when their crisp, angst-driven debut wormed its way into the hearts of many a disaffected suburbanite. Judging by this single, it looks like their 2019 album is gonna be gaudy, covered in sparkly reverb and dramatic electric guitar tremolos — and I’m not thrilled about that — but while I sharply disagree with their sound engineer, I can’t fault the composition itself, or the gorgeous (as always) showing by drummer Steve Lamos, or the choice of subject matter. Teenage stress gives way to directionless middle-aged depression: “How will I exist,” he says, and there’s a weird pang in my chest I didn’t expect to get from a band that spent 14 years broken up.

Alfred Soto: I hope these guys gave their engineer a bonus: boy, do those arpeggios sparkle. “Uncomfortably Numb” sparkles to muddled effect, for what they recorded is a valentine to anomie disguised as a depiction.

Ian Mathers: I’m not sure what I expected (having not paid much attention back in the day) when I finally got around to hearing all these reunited or still going post-emo acts, but it sure wasn’t for it all to be so determinedly, shapelessly… pleasant. I feel like I enjoyed it, but 10 seconds after it stops it’s already vanished from memory.

Alex Clifton: There are a lot of lovely quiet moments in this song with the rolling guitar in the background and some gorgeous harmonies between Hayley Williams and Mike Kinsella; this is more of the music I always wanted to hear Williams do. But something about it doesn’t punch me the way it should. A song called “Uncomfortably Numb” should at minimum wedge itself under my skin with some hard truths about life I’d rather not acknowledge; if it wants to go harder, it should leave me devastated. But there’s a lot to be said for the numbness here; try as I might to feel for these people, I can’t conjure the feeling.

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One Response to “American Football ft. Hayley Williams – Uncomfortably Numb”

  1. Honestly, as a lame 90s emo stan it gives me so much pleasure to see this community write so beautifully about this band and to get to be part of that