Every band that’s slapped with the emo designation has to walk a fine line. The genre’s immensely gratifying nature is due, in part, to the way it hits on a lovelorn and bitter nerve, but any group worth their salt that wants to stand the test of time needs to be adept at balancing out all of that sadsack shit in a way that prevents them from being too vindictive, shaming, and cruel towards the (more often than not) female subjects of their songs. Typically, this results in songs built around self-loathing and introspection, and Modern Baseball are part of a new wave of emo bands that understand that most of the time the problem comes from within. On their first two albums — 2012’s Sports and their 2014 breakthrough You’re Gonna Miss It All — and again on Holy Ghost, their third and most fully-realized record yet, they’ve toed that line with finesse. Previously, the Philadelphia band struck this balance through their biting sense of humor, making sure that every cutting observation ended on a punchline. But last year’s The Perfect Cast EP saw them moving away from the goofiness of their earlier work and towards an angrier, more mature perspective. Holy Ghost completes that transformation, as Modern Baseball largely transcend the banal frustrations of early adolescence and start to deal with what happens in adulthood when the world stops being polite and starts getting real.
The record is laid out in two halves with each of the band’s two primary songwriting forces — Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens — taking a side. They’re both dealing with some heavy shit, and you can hear that weight from the onset in the dour sigh of its opening title track. As laid out in their Fader profile, Ewald was coming to terms with the death of his grandfather and Lukens went through a close-call suicide attempt and a subsequent bipolar diagnosis whose treatment forced the band to cancel some tour dates. All of this was going on behind-the-scenes, but Holy Ghost airs it out in spectacular fashion and in a way that can serve as a guiding post for anyone going through a similar situation. These decidedly adult issues gives them less time to pine over girls and force them to examine themselves, their bad habits and histories, and how they negatively impact the people around them.
Holy Ghost’s divergent halves highlight the differences between Ewald’s and Lukens’ writing styles, something that was often muddied on their previous releases. With five songs a piece (not counting “Holy Ghost” and “Wedding Singer” separately, as they act in tandem with one another), their individual personalities start to emerge: Ewald is methodical and spiritual — his songs are plagued with doubt in both himself and the faith he was brought up in, handwringing over immutable truths. Lukens is rash and prone to outburst, as evidenced by his quick four two-minute hits followed by the comparably sprawling closing track “Just Another Face,” in which he insists that he’s “a waste of time and space” but starts to see the potential for hope: “I can feel the need to change me from the inside, but I can’t let anyone know just yet,” an open secret he’s just shared with anyone who wants to listen.
Even more telling is where the two songwriters overlap, most of which extends from the fact that they’re in a very popular band together and are dealing with pressures unique to that situation. Both members realize that they’re making a living off of exploiting their own emotions, and struggle with that reality and wonder if it’s all worth it: “Drunk and worthless, spewing bullshit all across the stage,” Ewald sings on “Note To Self.” “Now that I’m ‘older,’ I’ve seen what I’ve been: Ruthless, ungrateful, always trying to turn up tracks, be it about me or you,” Lukens reflects on “What If.” Another looming problem is the distance caused by long bouts on the road: “Why does it take two thousand miles for me to say ‘I love you’?” Lukens asks on “Breathing In Stereo.”
Album standout “Mass” is rooted in the anxiety and lovesickness that can comes from traveling around the country on tour and wanting to be anywhere but where they are. It’s a spiritual successor of sorts to You’re Gonna Miss It All’s stay-in-bed anthem “Rock Bottom” (a Lukens track — thematic overlap!), wishing for that kind of connection again and wanting things to go back to the way they were: “Days like this I miss listening to records, making coffee together, snow globes and jersey sheets,” Ewald spits out. “Sometimes I wish it was last summer and you still lived in South Philly and I wasn’t playing a show in Nebraska or Austin, Texas, asking the kids what they ate for breakfast.”
Though both Ewald and Lukens are on two separate journeys, they converge on their respective closing tracks: “Hiding” and “Just Another Face” both deal in crises of conscience, one grappling with the existence of a high power and the other fighting against a tendency towards self-destruction. Ewald ends on a question (“Are you hiding or have I abandoned you?”), one that remains unanswered as Lukens mirrors that feeling of abandonment in his closing lines: “I’m a waste of rock and dirt, grass and ground/ And all the earth around me, around you.” Modern Baseball have come a long way from writing songs about Twitter, and that maturation makes Holy Ghost both their best album yet and a promising sign of further growth to come.