“Maturity” is a fashionable word in music criticism. We praise the work of artists who have waded through the pratfalls of youth to offer wisdom from the other side. A band cannot be great unless that band is, to a certain extent, in control — of its image, of its message, of just how much chaos it is willing to embrace. Even the “break-up album” tends to be a far cleaner, neater affair than such a label implies; by the time the engineer presses that red button, most of the messy emotions have already been worked through and processed for public consumption. It’s rare to find a band that’s willing or able to sort its shit out on record, or at least one that sounds as excited to do it as Philadelphia’s Modern Baseball.
You’re Gonna Miss It All, the band’s second album in as many years, is by no means mature. If its dual engines are pop punk and late ‘90s emo, then its fuel is the nervous, unleaded energy of youth. Given the members’ age — they were still undergrads at Drexel University when they released their first LP, Sports, in 2012 — this should come as no surprise. In fact, nothing here should come as much of a surprise. The nasally vocals and power chord choruses are vintage Blink-182, and Modern Baseball belong to a slew of new bands indebted to The Get Up Kids, The Promise Ring, and other second wave emo stalwarts.
And yet there’s something refreshingly, well, modern about Modern Baseball. While so many of their peers gaze solemnly at their shoes or bask in reverb and pseudo-profundity, these four friends have decided to focus on the immediate problems of post-adolescent life: flaky friends, broken Instagram accounts, and the incompatibility of DIY ethics and a monthly data plan. “I hate worrying about the future/ ‘Cause all my current problems are based around the past,” sings Brendan Lukens on opener “Fine, Great”, perfectly capturing that strange No Man’s Land between college and what comes next. Lukens comes across like a Holden Caulfield for the iPhone generation: witty, insecure, and kind of an asshole. “It’s alright/ And I’m okay/ I don’t need your help anyway,” he shakily asserts, becoming less convincing with each passing syllable.
If Lukens’ voice makes him come across like a nervous ball of energy, the music offers a welcome sense of release. The soft-loud dynamics of emo underpin nearly every song on You’re Gonna Miss It All, and contemplative verses routinely give way to soaring choruses.
The album hardly skips a beat after its rousing opener, transitioning into “Broken Cash Machine” and its typical narrative of romance and regret. Jake Ewald takes over the vocal duties here, though one could be forgiven for barely detecting a difference between his delivery and that of Lukens. Ewald’s lyrics do tend to have a slightly more acerbic edge, lending an extra dose of cynicism to lines such as “Home alone on Friday night/ No better time for exercise” (and making a dud like “Wishing you were still my girlfriend” slightly more palatable). The two singers aren’t exactly yin and yang, but the subtle differences between their styles grow more pronounced and, thus, more interesting after multiple listens.
One thing these guys invariably have in common is a willingness to speak the truth and look stupid doing it. “Can we highlight the fact that/ My mouth smells like coffee and garlic,” sings Lukens on “Rock Bottom”, an unrequited love song that ends with the simple fantasy of planning tattoos and watching BBC’s Planet Earth in bed. Ewald takes another stab at the same theme on “Apartment”. “I could not muster the courage to say a single word,” he recalls in a frantic mumble, as if embarrassed at the thought of his own inadequacy.
Moments like these are what most distinguish Modern Baseball from their peers. These guys are one part George McFly and one part Marty McFly, the hopeless nerd and his too-cool-for-school progeny bundled together in a single package. “I’m pretty good at feeling sorry for myself,” sings Lukens on “Charlie Black”, neglecting to mention that he’s also pretty good at channeling that self-pity into something that rocks.
With 12 songs that clock in at under 30 minutes, You’re Gonna Miss It All is a brisk listen that only lags once or twice. The only song that really feels like it goes nowhere is “Timmy Bowers”, a well-meaning acoustic interlude that gets lost in its atmospherics. Fortunately, it’s followed by the rollicking “Going to Bed Now,” on which Ewald humorously (and quite sincerely) reflects on punk hypocrisy and the perils of maintaining a do-it-yourself ethos when there are phone bills to pay.
The album’s best track is also its most dynamic, with Lukens, Ewald, and even drummer Sean Huber taking their turn at the mic. “Your Graduation” is an amplified version of everything Modern Baseball does well, with its taut song structure and painfully honest lyrics rising to a climax in Huber’s explosive verse. One only hopes Huber’s pipes will be featured more prominently on future releases, as his gritty snarl makes for a more proper foil to both Lukens and Ewald.
Of course, Modern Baseball is a band that probably has a long way to go. They certainly wouldn’t claim otherwise. You’re Gonna Miss It All may not even end up being their definitive statement, what with all of its temporal references and post-adolescent longings. The band may yet have a more mature record up their sleeves, but it would impress this reviewer if they could once again catch this kind of lightning in a bottle. So take their sophomore effort for what it is — sophomoric, yes, but wonderfully, euphorically so.
Essential Tracks: “Fine, Great”, “Rock Bottom”, and “Your Graduation”