As a genre, emo has long been the bastion of those too sensitive and emotionally fragile to simply allow their frustrations and aggression speak for themselves in the form of snarling guitars and furious rhythms. While those are certainly stylistic elements used by many emo groups, the best take this musical catharsis one step further and top it off with insightful, self-reflective examinations of the root causes of deep-seated feelings that often manifest themselves in the form of crippling depression and emotional instability. In essence, it’s an emotionally raw form of artistic expression that could’ve only come to prominence in a post-LiveJournal/et. al. society wherein very specific emotions are given an almost uncomfortably in-depth lyrical exploration. But rather than serving as a form of emotional exploitation, this heightened level of self-awareness and analysis lends the music an authenticity that, given the attention to detail and focus on specificity, makes it that much more relatable in its inherent realness.

Of course to detractors, this quality is exactly why emo as a musical descriptor has, until recently, largely been used as a pejorative. But for those who find their innermost troubling thoughts and emotions laid bare in this, one of the most unapologetically vulnerable forms of artistic communication, it can function as something of a life raft. And if the lyrics don’t always resonate with the same force or emotional intensity, the push-pull of the major/minor surging guitars can be just as cathartic in a sort of fist-in-the-air way that only those who have been there ever fully understand.

Taking this notion to its extreme, Philadelphia’s Modern Baseball use their latest release to work through the emotionally turbulent years since the release of their debut. Splitting the songwriting duties down the middle, Jacob Ewald and Brendan Lukens offer two sides to essentially the same story, chronicling the band’s interpersonal ups and downs over the last several years – namely Lukens’ well publicized mental health issues. Far from coming across as an insular examination of a specific set of circumstances, Holy Ghost instead offers something of a universal entry point for those suffering through the ennui and confusion of a post-collegiate/pre-adulthood life in the specificity of the emotional turbulence these years tend to hold for a certain segment of the population.

Not surprisingly, much of Holy Ghost’s lyrical content is loaded with first-person pronouns and proclamations of perceived self-worth wrapped in a series of lyrically dense, musically short attempts at exorcising one’s demons. And despite clocking in at under half an hour, the sheer density of the album’s lyrics requires significantly more time to fully parse out, making Holy Ghost a listening experience that lasts well beyond its initial run time. Beginning with the titular ghost who has been “haunting [Ewald’s] dreams” through Lukens’ defeated “I’m a waste of time and space/drifting through my selfish ways/I don’t know how I got here”, Holy Ghost plays as an often uncomfortably personal self-examination of a very specific interpersonal relationship as viewed from two distinctly different perspectives.

By splitting the album’s songwriting duties in half, Ewald and Lukens allow for both sides to be heard. Rather than simply a one-sided assessment of the situation, Holy Ghost allows both of the primary players to speak for themselves, giving voice to their respective concerns in the face of what ultimately proved to be very serious mental health concerns. Knowing this lends all the more emotional heft to lines like “What’s the point of staying awake;” “Where I want to be still seems a thousand miles away” (“Note to Self”), and “I’m not the same as I was/but that’s cool, whatever/…We’ll make it together” (“Breathing in Stereo”).

But rather than being little more than an endless bummer or tiresomely navel-gazing, Holy Ghost carries with it an inherent sense of hopefulness and faith in the prospect of there being better days ahead. And it’s in this optimism that we the listeners are offered bits and pieces of hope lending themselves to a sense of confidence in a brighter future. “If it’s all the same/it’s time to confront this face to face/I’ll be with you the whole way”, they sing on album closer “Just Another Face”. It’s as much a reassurance as an agreement that this will all work out and, despite the often overwhelmingly oppressive darkness, with the help of others there will always be just enough light to help carry us through.

All the requisite emo tropes are present on Holy Ghost and, as a group, Modern Baseball do little to further the genre. But it’s their refinement of the formula and the deeply personal nature of their lyrics that help elevate Holy Ghost to an example of the best that emo has to offer. It’s a bold forward step for a group already having shown great promise on their debut. While they might never again reach the same emotional heights without returning to the same thematic well, they can hang their hat on the fact that Holy Ghost is a deeply affecting work that manages to transcend its potential insularity and become something of a beacon of hope for the downtrodden in the face of depression and hopelessness. And that’s ultimately the point of any attempt at a significant artistic statement. With Holy Ghost, Modern Baseball can rest easy knowing they’ve done just that.

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