Modern Baseball Goes Big League

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Peter Pan was first published as a play in 1904. The novelization (Peter and Wendy) was published in 1911. Even the Disney adaptation is more than sixty years old. In spite of its age, every single child I know can tell you who Peter Pan is. There are probably a few reasons for that, but I truly think there’s something universal and timeless about being afraid to grow up. At some point or another we’ve all wanted to cling to our youth by escaping to Neverland. Unfortunately, as Peter learns, everything and everyone must grow up. It’s messy and uncomfortable and rarely comes naturally, but it’s a fact of life. As kids, we’re told it won’t be easy but that it’ll be worth it.

The guys of Modern Baseball are my age, and their discography has made this business of growing older a bit less terrifying. Their last two albums have practically soundtracked an entire chapter of my life, which means I’ve been (not so) patiently waiting for the newest release. Holy Ghost is here, and it brings that same kind of relatability, despite getting there in totally new ways.

One of my favorite things about Modern Baseball has always been their wittiness. Sports and You’re Gonna Miss It All were packed with heavy-handed topics undercut by wry, self-deprecating lyrics. On “See Ya Sucker,” lead singer Brendan Lukens delivers a personal favorite in regards to a relationship problem: “I reckon you grew up in a town that said ‘reckon’ all the time, but what gives you the right to wreck everything?” When I’m not busy burying my head in the sand, diffusing difficult subjects with humor is my bread and butter, so I’ve always been on the same wavelength as Modern Baseball.

However, some subjects are beyond this kind of coping mechanism and need to be faced head-on. On Holy Ghost, Lukens tackles his own mental health, substance abuse, and subsequent stint in treatment (which led to the cancellation of a string of Australian tour dates last year) while co-writer Jacob Ewald grapples with the death of his grandfather and the ensuing ripple effect through his family. These are not the kinds of emotional bombs that can be diffused by clever quips. So Modern Baseball buckled their seat belts and got down to business for their first attempt at “real” adulthood.

I’ll be honest: The thought of MoBo leaving behind one of my favorite qualities scared me. The Perfect Cast EP and the two appetizer singles from Holy Ghost were a hint that listeners probably shouldn’t hold their breath for any giggle-inducing moments in the near future, and I worried how I was going to handle a full-length project that held a mirror to many of my own issues without also smirking at them.

I shouldn’t have worried. Modern Baseball 2.0 is here, and they’ve pulled it off.

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The album opens with the ambling title track, which foreshadows the project’s weight before lurching into the concert-ready “Wedding Singer.” The abrupt transition feels like a flashback, and the progression of the album works to slowly return to the heavy-handedness of that opening number. It’s like getting a glimpse of midnight before leaping back through time to the sunrise.

Listeners looking for remnants of Sports can find shelter in “Mass,” where Ewald sneaks in lines like “But here I am, Valero bathroom. Who’s paid to keep these things… cliche? Bury me beneath New York State. It’s the only place where I feel dead.” Ewald reminisces about a time when his long distance relationship wasn’t, and the song carries the classic Modern Baseball conundrum of being fantastic, yet devastatingly short. Fortunately that’s a problem I faced much less on this album.

Things also sound much better here. The group recorded Sports at in a recording studio at Drexel University, giving it a charming DIY feel. You’re Gonna Miss It All has more of a major-label quality to it, but nothing like the high-polished feel Holy Ghost carries. Joe Reinhart is probably to thank for this, as he was tabbed to produce the record. It’s the first project by the group to be produced by an outsider, and it feels like it. Reinhart brings expertise from work with groups like Joyce Manor and Hop Along and makes Holy Ghost feel like a real coming-out party.

Hearing Modern Baseball dissect their problems without their sarcastic tone takes some getting used to. There are a few moments on the album where reality hits home at full force without any protection. “Where I want to be still seems a thousand miles away, but pretending we feel safe right here gets harder every day,” sings Ewald on “Note To Self.” For better or worse, older releases never would’ve stated an issue so plainly and without humor. A part of me will always miss “old” Modern Baseball, but this feels like a healthy and logical progression for the group.

Despite the changes in tone, things still feel intensely personal like they always have with these guys. Towards the end of school, I took a Magazine Writing class and one of the biggest things I learned was to fill my stories with specific details. The best writers do this, whether their work is appearing in Rolling Stone or on an album. On “Mass,” Ewald bemoans the fact that, unless he can find “two bills to rub together,” he won’t be able to catch the train at the Tasker-Morris station. There are mentions of parking lots in Ottowa, trains to Frankford, and a cashier named Jeanette whose lame job has her “stuck between Barton and Binghamton.

Ironically, Holy Ghost hits full stride on its most restrained, pensive moment. “Hiding” presently resides as my favorite song the band has released to date. When talking about the maturity of the record, this track is the keystone.

“Still some nights I find the ideas that bring me rest are the ones that used to prod and pester and keep me up. Swinging open doors I swore I’d shut.”

This kind of steeled resolve to defeat life’s obstacles is not one you’d have found on earlier projects, and it’s the greatest thing Holy Ghost brings to the table. “Hiding” is the end of Ewald’s half of the album, and he puts on a brave face towards the future in a mostly reflective way. Five tracks later, Lukens closes his half and stares down the next chapter in life with a bit more gusto. How perfect that the band hits their highest heights with the final song of the newest album?

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“Just Another Face” is the most complete, well-rounded product of Modern Baseball 2.0, and it changes the feel of the entire project. This feels like the exorcism of months of demons, and the track’s driving percussion carries the weight of this emotional vomit pile. Maturity sounds lame and boring until you’ve heard Brendan unload on this song.

It opens with a punch to the mouth. “I’m a waste of time and space, drifting through my selfish ways. I don’t know how I got here.” By the time we reach the chorus, Lukens is hollering. “If it’s all the same, it’s time to confront this face to face. I’ll be with you the whole way. It’ll take time, that’s fact.”

This is it. This is Holy Ghost.

There’s nothing here softening the blows. There’s no cute analogies or tweetable punchlines. There is no stifling this. This is digging down and pulling the weeds of life by the root. This is Brendan staring straight down the barrel of his demons and saying “I’m gonna beat this.” This is amazing.

Obviously I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think this is something the band could’ve done a year or two ago. I feel like I’m listening to a totally different group, but in the best possible way. Modern Baseball has made a habit of ending their full-length releases on a quieter note. Sports wrapped with “Coals” and You’re Gonna Miss It All ended with “Pothole.” These are two of my favorite moments from the band’s entire discography. On Holy Ghost, they swing the opposite direction. Instead of a 150-second campfire song, we get a 4-minute cascade of emotion. It’s nearly the longest song the band has ever released, which feels intentional. If Sports was a creek, Holy Ghost is Niagara Falls.

Peter Pan succeeds at doing what we all thought we wanted to do. He never gets older. He stays in Neverland forever, isolated from the real world while the ones he loves most slip through his fingers. Isn’t that how drug and alcohol addiction is? “I was relying on alcohol and weed to get through any day of the week,” Lukens told Noisey in October. “To have my old friends see me like that, it wasn’t necessarily something I wanted everyone to see. … I just didn’t want anyone to know what was going on because I didn’t want anyone to mess with my life.” At some point, Brendan decided he needed to leave the place he was and deal with the issues he was facing.

Wendy returns to London and lives a normal life. We never find out what her journey is like, but don’t we already know? She had to face problems like the rest of us do. Despite reaching Neverland, Wendy makes the decision to leave. She knows it won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. She returns to the real world, dives face first into real life, bravely faces reality, and chooses to take the good with the bad. So has Modern Baseball.

For Brendan, deciding to leave his personal Neverland couldn’t have been easy, and his journey will probably get harder before it gets easier, but, as the closing line of the album states: “Even if you can’t see it now, we’re proud of what’s to come. And you.”