Typically, bands with multiple songwriters exhibit a kind of competitive angst, with egos competing for record space, and eventually devolving into bitterness and solo careers. However, if one listened to the first two albums of Modern Baseball, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume all the songs are written by one person, given just how cohesively Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens’ respective styles fit together. As such, Holy Ghost stands as their most ambitious test of their compatibility, splitting the album between the two songwriters Speakerboxxx/The Love Below-style, in spite of the album only lasting around 28 minutes, and whilst it’s their most challenging work, it’s easily their best.
In the light of the album’s structure (the first 6 tracks are Ewald’s, and the final 5 are by Lukens), the differences between the two songwriters are more apparent than ever before. Ewald’s side is the lighter of the two, and it feels right that he open the record. After what must be one of the most haunting intro tracks ever committed to tape – “I’ve been bleeding from tripping in the dark” – Wedding Singer opens the album-proper with catchy and propulsive force. Equipped with churning rhythm guitar and sprinting drums, the song is an adrenaline hit, and it provides a great space for Ewald to reminisce about regret and youth – “five blocks from Tasker-Morris Station / f***ed for the ride home if I can’t find two bills”. His vocal style seems to be to cram as many syllables into a bar as physically possible, but the pace of the song makes it work, and his energy is infectious.
His half of the album sees the band expanding their sound into new realms. The punk-churn of Everyday is an odd compliment to the Chris Martin-esque falsetto Ewald uses on the track, and it lends his lyrics a contemplative significance. His lyrics on Holy Ghost generally take the form of ruminations on memories from a distant past, and are a huge step up from the more lighthearted songs on the band’s previous work.
In contrast, Lukens’ half of the album is written to feel visceral and immediate. Since their 2014 album You’re Gonna Miss It All, Lukens has had trouble with depression and anxiety, and he seems to have channelled all of that into his music. On lead single Apple Cider, I Don’t Mind he sings about heartbreak like he has many times before, but it feels charged with more bitterness and longing than ever before – “it’s not like me to forgive and move on always”. It’s a great, catchy track, and highlights the differences in style between Lukens and Ewald.
However, Lukens’ half of the record doesn’t quite coalesce until the final track, Just Another Face, which is easily the best song the band has ever recorded. The sound is bigger and brawnier than the rest of the album, and the bass-heavy guitars feel ready to fill arenas. Lukens abandons any pretensions of distance, and lays his problems on the table – “I’m a waste of time and space / meandering unwanted days” – in the verses, before switching the tone to a hard-won optimism in the chorus – “I’m not just another face, I’m not just another name / even if you can’t see it now, we’re proud of what’s to come”. He sings in an excellent Brandon Flowers impression, and the sound soars, with U2 guitars taking the song to another level of emotional potency.
Holy Ghost is easily Modern Baseball’s best work yet, and they pull of this ambitious step into darker, more honest territory with aplomb. In spite of the odd structure, the album feels balanced, with each songwriter given time to properly shine. Holy Ghost crams an amazing amount of quality into less than half-an-hour, and feels like the crowning achievement for one of the world’s best emo bands.