Miikka Skaffari/FilmMagic

The Time For The Emo Revival Is Now

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on listening to a new American Football album in 2016

The new American Football album begins with a question. Mike Kinsella, his voice as soft as it was when it left us more than a decade ago ago, sings “Where are we now? / We’re both home alone in the same house / Would you even know me if I wasn’t old me?” He is, of course, not the old him. The first American Football album in 17 years is an examination of how to pull your younger self out of the older shell you may be currently living in. The guys in American Football aren’t twentysomethings anymore, and this means an album where one foot is planted firmly in the past and the rest of the body is fighting with what it means to grow older and have so many feelings.

A band returning after a several-year hiatus has to be unafraid of what once made them great. Angst is the jacket you get as a child that manages to grow in size as you age. American Football decided to pull it out of the closet after 17 years, and it still fits. The album is great, important, and particularly urgent. More than simply a return to form, it’s a look at what it is to have lived a life that hasn’t pulled you out of any type of longing or sadness but has simply made the longing and sadness shift into something else. The lyrics still feel like they were scrawled on bits of notebook paper in between long nights — the kind of lines listeners pluck from the songs’ wreckage and place on their bodies, in their email signatures, anywhere someone else might see them.

Nostalgia is nothing if not reliable. We can get into the romantics of the way things were, and even if things were not actually all that great, it’s easy to convince someone that they were, especially if they weren’t there, or if they were there and are sure that “there” was better than whatever “here” has to offer.

We’re in the perfect moment for the emo album 10-year anniversary tour and will likely remain here for at least the next year. Even a band like Cute Is What We Aim For, who released two only marginally successful albums during the 2006–2008 emo boom, hit the road this year for a celebration of the 10-year anniversary of their album The Same Old Blood Rush with a New Touch. On its face, this run of revisiting albums should appeal to me, someone who traffics in nostalgia in all its forms. But the problem with this particular toe-dip into the past is that these songs, sung now by people a decade older, don’t hold up as well without forcing the listener, who is often also a decade older, to cringe at their content. One of the first three lines of “Newport Living,” the song that opens the aforementioned Cute Is What We Aim For album, is “In every circle of friends there’s a whore.” This line, which is rough on its own, sets the tone for the entire album, one of bitterness and misplaced aggression, separating women into the good girl/bad girl binary and spending most of the songs tearing into the latter for any number of perceived offenses. It’s an album I sang along to 10 years ago but that I’m far less interested in singing along to now, and one that, I hope, its creators are at least a little less interested in performing. Sometimes all it takes for an album to not hold up is for our suspension of disbelief to wear off ever so slightly.

The truth is that the emo revival I am craving now is not one of grown men summoning their petty ghosts from decades past and dressing them up for the nostalgia-eager masses. That’s the easy way to answer the call, but it’s not always the most virtuous. I do crave the live album played all the way through, but only as an idea. When it arrives, when I’m actually at the concert, brought back to all that I was in whatever moment that album came to me, I’m often unfulfilled. Not enough time has passed, I think, for these concerts to register as truly spectacular beyond a few brief and bright moments. Too many of us can still reach back, touch a moment from that time, and feel it sting just as sharply. It’s one thing to write about an album from the past and then exit it, just as it was — to manipulate the memory of it on your own. It’s another to wallow in the lyrics, and also the memories of yourself those lyrics may bring on.

As I’ve aged, I’ve become less comfortable with the idea of a sadness that isn’t tethered to anything in particular. As a teenager, even in my early twenties, I could be sad and answer to no one and nothing, which is when sad songs did their best work. Perhaps it’s the rise in responsibilities for some of us as we age, or the way vulnerability is less of a risk when we’re too young to understand its stakes. But I see, so often, people like me, thinking that there has to be a reason they can give people to justify whatever sadness is hanging over them on any particular day. This seems especially odd in times like these, when any given day is absolutely littered with land mines of grief that we must tiptoe around. We owe no one any explanation for our sadness, but “Why are you so sad today?” could have many simple answers now: I accidentally watched the news for too long; the market next door sold out of the sorbet that I fell in love with; I saw a boy and thought about how a boy his age died somewhere that is not here.

I do sometimes run to happy songs in these moments — the Chance, the Carly Rae, the Jamila Woods. But I’m missing the type of sad song that did the work of healing by not trying to do the work of healing. My heartbreak is of a different brand these days. I’m not as hung up on girls and parents as I am with the very real concerns that come with growing old in a world where that isn’t promised. The latest American Football album is the grown-up emo album that I knew I needed but never expected to get. It is a treat, in that this is a band that figured out how to stick to the ethos of the genre, even as they’ve grown. To say “Fuck it, we’re older, but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel anything.” They've stayed true to emo, the genre rooted in emotion and unashamed of it, even for all of the overwrought theatrics of its lead singers and songwriters, who now, in some cases, are eating their own tails instead of leaning into this moment, a moment so filled with the very sadness and uncertainty that propelled the genre forward.

I lived a different life during that mid-2000s emo boom, one that I was certain would always be as it was then. With that in mind, I am not saying that grown men singing the songs from their past about the angst and anger of heartbreak is useless. Even at their most juvenile and problematic, those songs will continue to serve a purpose for people who will, ideally, grow out of them later. I say leave those songs to the young. I am not old, but I’m old enough to know that I won’t live as I am forever. I see my fears and anxieties reflected in almost everything, except for the music I used to turn to when I was most anxious and afraid. I don’t believe in the genre’s death as much as I believe in a reimagining of what the potential for it is. The young bands — Sorority Noise, Foxing, Real Friends — are carrying the torch of emo’s ethos. But what of those bands that grew up? I can’t imagine that the best thing to do is continue chasing the reliable sad music that we remember from our pasts. The emo revival, as I see it, builds on the question asked by American Football: Where are we now?

We are, at least many of us, not our old selves anymore. But if we’re lucky, we can still feel things. And we still need the right songs to draw those feelings out.