“I can feel the need to change me from the inside,” Brendan Lukens utters on the closing track of Modern Baseball’s third and latest LP, Holy Ghost. It’s a poignant reflection on his — and by extension, the band’s — narrative over the last few years. In that span of time, the Maryland-born Philadelphia resident, who has always dealt with crippling depression and anxiety, sank into an ongoing series of struggles with mental health and substance abuse. About eight months ago, Lukens’ problems came to a head when he nearly attempted suicide.
His parents and friends intervened, the band went on a brief hiatus, and Lukens was taken to a treatment center in Maryland. In the process, the band was forced to cancel their upcoming U.K. and Australian tour dates. If last year’s excellent MoBo Presents: The Perfect Cast EP presented a flailing, verge-of-collapse Lukens (“Hey you, that’s no way out / You can’t find help in a bottle or a cut / They’ll choose the wrong way to remember you”) on the desperate “The Waterboy Returns,” here, on Holy Ghost, he seeks solace in recovery.
Well, partially. With its songwriting split clean in half (singer-guitarist Jacob Ewald wrote tracks one through six, and Lukens’ material closes out the record), Holy Ghost’s dueling perspectives vary thematically. Ewald’s portion name-drops East Coast locales, like the curiously upbeat “Wedding Singer,” which sounds emotionally paralyzed between two cities: Philadelphia (“five blocks from Tasker-Morris station”) and Baltimore. The super-brief “Mass” appears torn over the stress of a displaced love, with one party living in the titular Northeast state and the other still five hours south — and that’s not when he’s “playing a show in Nebraska.”
Lukens’ half, which he wrote in the studio, weaves in lyrics that address personal change and how the experience affected him. “I’m not the same as I was, but that’s cool, whatever,” he sings, shrugging on the reflective “Breathing in Stereo,” before concluding, “We’ll make it together.” On the aural head rush of “What If…,” Lukens points out how he hasn’t always considered the people around him: “Now that I’m ‘older’ I’ve seen what I’ve been / Ruthless, ungrateful, always trying to turn up tracks.”
Introspective as these couplets read, MoBo have always stood apart from the emo-revival hoi polloi by sneaking into the pop spectrum with simpler sonics and more accessible structures than their peers. You don’t have to pledge allegiance to one genre to appreciate Lukens’ John K. Samson-like warble. To that end, Holy Ghost is, by far, the band’s tightest, catchiest endeavor to date. The sharpened production, courtesy of Joe Reinhart (Hop Along, Joyce Manor), lends the record a professional, arena-readiness that even the similarly taut and hooky MoBo Presents doesn’t quite achieve.
Given Holy Ghost’s two-pronged creation (unlike Lukens, Ewald wrote his contributions before Modern Baseball hit the studio), it’s impressive that the finished product sounds as cohesive as it does. That certainly speaks to the guys’ artistic connection and overall friendship. The union might be even cleaner, though, if the songwriting had been more of a collaboration rather than two separate auteurs’ A-side/B-side project. It can be tricky to pin down the album’s overall feeling when its stream of consciousness connects to two separate thought bubbles that overlap only a little bit. (Ewald does address Lukens’ illness on album opener “Wedding Singer,” singing, “Said goodbye from the front porch / I always wonder if you’re smiling at us or looking away.”)
Melodically, Lukens’ side sounds moodier and more urgent than his counterpart’s, who tends to write quicker in the major key (“Wedding Singer,” “Mass”) and slower songs in the minor (“Everyday”). For Lukens, though, there are no breaks in pace. Nearly every track runs close to breakneck speed, as if, like the Dismemberment Plan once posited, the broken pieces of his heart will stay together if he Anabelmusics fast enough. Should he unravel, Lukens can rest easy in the fact that his bandmates will always “be proud of what is to come… and you.”
Correction: An earlier version of this review misidentified Lukens’ treatment as part of an inpatient program.