BY JEREMY BURKE
A quick Google search suggests that there’s no word in English that means “sort of the same and sort of different,” probably because we’re paradox adverse. One of the few words that does come up as a suggestion, though, is “homonym.” Although usually used to refer to two words that sound the same but are spelled differently, I’m interested in pursuing its alternate definition: two words that look the same but are pronounced differently (“read,” for example, or “lead”).
I first came to Modern Baseball the spring of my junior year of college, one of the sadder semesters of my life. Having crashed from the high of study abroad back to reality, fresh from a large and messy breakup, trying to figure out how my friendships had changed and learn how to flirt again, frequently really anxious, Modern Baseball’s sophomore album You’re Gonna Miss It All was like a support group for me, a record (musical and archival) that showed that I was not alone. It was a jangly pop punk touchstone, capturing exactly what it was like to be sad and in college.
I played it literally over one hundred times in three months. It’s full of failed relationships, skipped classes, and venomous ends of friendships. It is delightful, and was exactly what I needed. I even bought a shirt of theirs that reads “Whatever Forever.”
Dropped on Friday, Modern Baseball’s surprise EP The Perfect Cast is extremely concerned with returns and changes. Of the six tracks, three pose as sequels (“The Waterboy Returns,” “Alpha Kappa Fall of Troy The Movie Part Deux,” and “Revenge of the Nameless Ranger”). One might note that “The Nameless Ranger” is the name of MoBo’s first ever release. This is the band’s first solo release since 2014’s breakthrough LP You’re Gonna Miss It All, which pitched them out of relative obscurity and onto Billboard’s Top 200; and their anxieties are turning towards their newfound fame. Although there are still plenty of songs about failed relationships, the subtext is that the band is terrified of not living up to the name they’ve made for themselves.
Their confessional lyrics are deeper than ever, EP opener “The Waterboy Returns” eschewing entirely singer Brendan Luken’s usual sarcastic, joking veneer. The song opens with just Lukens and a guitar: “Hey you, that’s no way out. You can’t find help in a bottle or a cut.” The rest of the band kicks in. Chugging guitars and doubled vocals carry the song forward, fuller and heavier than Modern Baseball has ever been before. “Waterboy” serves as a frank, honest, even scared discussion of Luken’s own mental health, told from the point of view of a worried friend (likely its co-writer, Old Gray’s Cameron Boucher). Rather than scathing and rejective, the song brings us up close, welcomes us, and tells us sincerely I’m having a hard time. As a result, it’s one of the band’s most affecting performances to date.
And, as beginnings often do, it represents a change as a whole. “Caught you wasting away on accolades for songs you wrote, paralyzed by change, but scared to death that you might stay the same” Lukens cries at the end of the song, acknowledging the impossibility of following up the album that made you a star, the sophomore slump, the question of “how do I top what I did before?”
Which is where the question of homonyms comes in. Because while Modern Baseball may look the same—still sad, still emotive, still energetic—the sound is different: certainly musically heavier (much of the youthful exuberance they expressed on their two LPs has simmered down to a slow-burning brood, the guitar lines now at the lower end of the neck); and more serious, too (whereas You’re Gonna Miss It All only had one song that could be played on the radio, Perfect Cast is completely free of swearing); more daring (the guitars on “. . . And Beyond” soar in finger-picked glory, tinged with alt-country lead lines, the furthest thing the band has done, thus far, from their usual power-chord pop punk); and more honest. It’s a sort of Pinkerton to the Blue Album of MB’s first LPs, sans the creepy obsession with Japanese girls.
The last two tracks on the album, “. . . And Beyond” and “Revenge of the Nameless Ranger,” come to a sort of agreement. “You and I have come such a long way, for us to start again,” ends “Beyond,” only for “Ranger” to start “I’m just not the same, and I’m never gonna be again.” The message seems to be this: it’s both too late to start fresh and too late to stay the same. Modern Baseball thus find themselves straddling the two worlds— a little bit different, a little bit the same.
The members of Modern Baseball are, for the most part, twenty-two years old, the same as me. They’re finishing up college in Philadelphia, graduating just before they release their forthcoming LP, Holy Ghost. And just as their songs about being sad guys in college were perfect for me in 2014, now, having graduated from college, living in the city, I’m also trying to figure out how to stay the same and change at the same time. At least I’ll have the right soundtrack while I figure it out.
Return & Revenge, Part Deux:
Modern Baseball’s The Perfect Cast EP