Run For Cover Records
Release Date: May 13, 2016
The first album was an accident destined to become a success: a collection of absurdly wordy, talk-singy anthems of heartbreak, twitter, weed, and heartbreak again. It was relatable to the point of being a little embarrassing, it was neurotic and funny, and it was more melodic and hooky than the band's earlier even more, nasal work. Dual lead songwriters Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens bounced off of one another, alternating songwriting credits and trading lines, feeding off the other's energy. The follow-up album, You're Gonna Miss It All, was an expected smash, doubling down on the neuroses and ramping up the tempo. It cemented their place in the Philly hierarchy: less serious than Sorority Noise, less jangly than Radiator Hospital, less punk than The Menzingers, but arguably more likable. They were plaintive, honest, and always strumming faster than hell.
Everything about Holy Ghost indicates a heavier, more mature record. Holy Ghost is darker, the distortion muddy, the vocals less all over the place, at times hinting at a gothy Cure homage (The Cure are referenced explicitly on "Hiding" and, along with U2, seem to be an inspiration point for the band in pushing their sound larger). There's the subject matter: depression, addiction, and the specter of religion. The record opens with Ewald invoking the album's namesake: "He's been haunting my dreams alright / I've been hollering at Him in the dark, trying to find the right switch." The album as a whole feels haunted, plagued by self-doubt and unanswered questions.
Then there's the two halves, one for each songwriter, which in itself feels like a Statement, an assertion of the band's ability to do more than just social media jokes. Giving Ewald and Lukens each their own extended statement is an intuitive call for a band who I legitimately didn't realize had two vocalists until I saw them live. Although they have their own brands of nasal delivery, the exact distinctions between songwriters wasn't always clear. The split feels like an overdue introduction to two songwriters who indeed each has a lot to offer.
The real surprise here is Lukens's half. The much-talked-about struggles with addiction and depression are here, but due in part to the brevity of the songs, they feel like extensions of themes he's previously addressed. The music, however, is like none he's written, jittery and anxious and full-bore, a salvo of sub-two minutes barbs. "Coding These To Lukens" rips with purpose, wasting zero seconds and still finding time for one of his best choruses: "I know it can't be in my head / it must be one of you who keeps pulling me aside / to chit-chat about what the deal is with / who I was once." He's still lovelorn--see "Breathing In Stereo"'s plaintive cry of "Why does it take two thousand miles for me to say 'I love you'"--but he's singing to us from a place of expanded perspective. The sophomoric pains and problems from earlier records are recontextualized through the lens of genuine suffering. "Just Another Face," the sole Lukens song over three minutes, starts with the baleful proclamation, "I'm a waste of time and space / I'm drifting through my selfish ways / I don't know how I got here." When he sings "I'll be with you the whole way," it sounds like a promise that carries a lot of weight from a person who knows what it means to be there for someone on dark days.
The unexpected consequence of the 50/50 division is that the sequencing suffers. The songs themselves are uniformly excellent, but the split layout may have done more for PR than for the record. By the time "What If..." roars into its breathless chorus, the Lukens side has begun to feel a bit assaulting, something that mixing in Ewald's more varied offerings could have alleviated.
In fact, Ewald's half holds up a bit better to repeated listens. The varied song length and pacing creates a natural rise and fall, ending in the genuinely affecting and anthemic "Hiding." The struggles with religion are inconclusive, and intentionally so. On "Wedding Singer," the most musically upbeat offering on the album, Ewald spends a moment talking to a deceased relative: "Said goodbye on the front porch / I always wonder if you're looking at us or looking away / I'd ask but either way I feel sorry for ya'." The answers aren't coming, and maybe they aren't so consequential after all. "Note To Self" takes the old theme of self-loathing and injects a new vitriol--he seems genuinely angry with himself as he howls "Drunk and worthless / spewing bullshit / all across the stage." "Every Day," also, is wearier than we've previously heard Ewald, and the intensity makes for fewer sing-alongs but is a welcome evolution.
Modern Baseball is exactly where they should be: older, more mature, more sure of their big gestures and self-aware enough to trim the fat. And they sound like themselves, an important caveat for a band with such an enormous personality. The chord progressions lifted from The Weakerthans are still here, but they're now being modified, twisted to fit a purpose. MoBo's influences, while not yet invisible, are being integrated into a whole that feels increasingly unique and vital. Philly's most lovable goofballs have years of experience and a little newfound gravity, and it looks good on them.
Reviewed by Keegan 1340