Philadelphia’s Modern Baseball earned its name from a book called Modern Baseball Techniques. Brendan Lukens, one of the four-piece’s founding members, once confessed the full title wasn’t repurposed because he and his co-conspirator, Jake Ewald, couldn’t spell “techniques.” However goofy that admission might have been, it was perfectly in line with Lukens and Ewald’s earliest output under the moniker.
Sports, the band’s debut LP, exhibited plenty of techniques that would continue as the band gained a full lineup and a stocked tour calendar. In fact, its running order is so arranged that it flows like a concept album. The first six tracks, weaving between pop-punk energy and indie-rock sincerity, shout for “home.” Opener “Re-do” finds Lukens rattling off things he loves: watching movies, sitting back; also, breathing. “@chl03k” finds that same narrator cycling through a Twitter timeline for some clarity (or a new crush). Both of these scenarios could happen to someone teetering on the edge of adolescence and adulthood, and someone who’s negotiating this critical shift at home. Six tracks later, there’s a pining for “away.” “Re-done” rattles off a different list, one of tasks: do this and that, travel the map. No longer is Lukens sifting through this strange territory alone — a “we” pronoun precedes each of these entries — or in the comfort of a familiar place. Also consider that tracks which follow this thematic change include titles such as “See Ya, Sucker” and “Look Out,” ones of movement, growth. These techniques weren’t necessarily spelled out for those who gravitated to these sleeper hits — maybe not even hitmaker Run for Cover Records, who signed the group shortly after the album’s fall 2012 release — but they were well in play.
2014’s sophomore LP You’re Gonna Miss It All continued this volley between the musings of goofy homebodies and songwriters grappling with a widening, stiffening worldview. The lists and cataloging don’t necessarily return on this record, but the competing desires to stay home from responsibility (“I’ve got so much to do but it’s okay/’Cause whatever forever”) and confront a larger universe (“But I’m still outside not doing anything wrong/Just walking in circles playing high school songs in my head/Because it’s better than lying awake”) do. The two songs featuring these at-odds mentalities are titled “Rock Bottom” and “Two Good Things,” warring ends of a mental and emotional spectrum.
To say Holy Ghost — the band’s third LP out this week via Run for Cover — is a complete overhaul of Modern Baseball’s tendencies is to ignore the tug-of-war on past records. First, analyze the “away.” Considering the promotional cycle for You’re Gonna Miss It All lasted the greater part of two years, its follow-up has its fair share of road reflections. “Mass” rattles off an itinerary of tour stops at auctioneer speed and Ewald references his own live performance shtick: asking the audience what they had for breakfast. “Breathing in Stereo” operates similarly, but Lukens aligns a broken heart with a broken schedule, assuring that “alone, I feel safe.” Sitting back, also: breathing.
“Home” is where Holy Ghost finds Modern Baseball evolving; the emotional arenas that Ewald and Lukens face on their respective tracks are no longer innocent attempts at reaching peace. The familiar world so lovingly (or endearingly) constructed on their past output is one they can no longer revisit. For the first time, Ewald recedes into the shadows after tracks on Sports picked his bones up from breaking into brittle fibers. “Hiding” is an act of contrition (“Let me learn here/I am in pursuit of all I can undo”) and a steady acceptance of life’s fragility (“Stitch the gaps that destiny assumed/With floral sutures”). That latter line finds the unwavering calm of the arrangement — anchored by electronic drums for the first time in Modern Baseball history — blasted open by pedal-kissed guitar. The change in ferocity finds Ewald asking one final question before the ruckus loops and fades: “Are you hiding or have I abandoned you?” After this brief meditation, Ewald’s inner sanctum is one affecting the rest of those battling the same pangs of loss. Earlier in his half of Holy Ghost, he assures he “want[s] to make something better/Something that cannot leave the ground/Unless we lift it up together.” However, the need to be alone to digest what his grief has constructed briefly mixed his messages.
Lukens also wants to make something better, something that cannot leave the ground. In order to do that, his side of the Holy Ghost equation needs to first be unscrambled. What better way to do so than on a track called “Coding These to Lukens,” where admissions of mood swings and anguish (“Get out of my way, steadfast/I’m fiending”) crash against with paranoid dissections of others (“I know it can’t be in my head/It must be one of you who keep pulling me aside”). Ewald’s Holy Ghost is very much tethered to wrestling with a higher power — an order of “Mass” keeping him away from love, understanding the depth of his guilt, etc. Lukens wrestles with the powers inside himself, whether the red-faced aggression or level-headed appeals for better days. It’s not something that’s always accomplished through lovelorn tracks like “Apple Cider, I Don’t Mind,” its booming, larger-than-life production. Sports and You’re Gonna Miss It All already had those in spades. It’s where the analysis finally hits home and pits both sides of Lukens’ mental state against each other.
“Just Another Face” is a phrase that Lukens shouts both on Holy Ghost‘s final track and one of the first songs he ever released. That early recording was released under BTFL, an abbreviation of his full name, and was featured alongside exoskeletons of songs now mythologized on Sports. Over steady chord changes and a drumless backdrop, Lukens’ voice jumps octaves to exclaim “she’s not just another face.” The 2016 upheaval pushes forth a blast of chords that ring out and drums that carry Lukens’ monologue forward. There’s an urgency in his voice; the octave jumps come after he admits he’s “not just another face.” This maturity isn’t achieved with blushing naivety, but confidence. Modern Baseball’s overarching objective stood to document transitions into adulthood. Now it stands to document what could possibly come next after mastering an uneasy junction.
All that’s for sure is with this greater sense of control, there’s also breathing.