Modern Baseball remind me of everything good about being seventeen, and I hate how much that makes me love them. This is the nostalgic music of my youth. Whatever wave of emo they are is my classic rock revival. Here are some guys my age making music inspired by what we were both listening to in middle school and high school.
I saw them last fall. They were the first opening act playing before The Front Bottoms and Brand New. I was sitting in the first row of the balcony at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium. The room was half full at best, and they were so small below me. I really dug their set. They didn’t play my favorite song of theirs, and I don’t remember anything smart or cute or funny they said, but I fell a little bit more in love, a fact I deeply resent.
I wouldn’t say they’re good. I just love them with my whole heart. They’re derivative, and their lyrics have some oddly phrased mazes, and their voices are the worst kind of emo boy whining. I’m not sure how to describe the guitar tone, but it’s kind of shrill, and the overall effect can be kind of discordant in a bad way. These are things that make me love them. These are things I didn’t know I was missing in my life until they came around.
I’ve been trying to write about what Modern Baseball mean to me for about a year now, and I still haven’t figured it out. But it’s time to put what I’ve come up with out in the universe, as a snapshot of my relationship, to be updated with further developments.
I have to start by explaining emo, and my relationship to it, which isn’t a simple proposition. I went through a phase where I considered emo deeply uncool. Something fun, I guess, fine pop music, but unessential, less meaningful than the other things I had discovered, absolutely lesser. I was a terrible snob, but I’m a lot better now. I can can be into all kinds of pretentious weird shit and hold onto the most formative music of my youth.
There’s this whole gang of “emo” bands that were incredibly popular when I was a teenager. I get confused about what wave they’re supposed to be, so let’s just call them Peak Emo, like Peak Oil. That was emo’s mainstream high, the most emo possible. I’m not calling it Peak Emo was the best (though that argument could be made), but because at this point there was maximum emo saturation in the world. There was this moment when Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Panic! at the Disco, and many others were a huge deal. There was a style: swoopy bangs, lots of eyeliner, shopping at Hot Topic — a sound: glossy punk pop with confessional lyrics and odd imagery — and a moment: my life, approximately age 13-18. These bands toured together, and were on the same labels, and all seemed connected. They shared an audience and an aesthetic. I was the perfect age to get caught up in this storm.
The first rock concert I went to was Panic! at the Disco. I was in seventh grade, and it was the Nothing Rhymes with Circus Tour, with all of the dancers, the queerbaiting almost kiss, and Ryan Ross’s infamous rose vest. It was beautiful.
A lot of Peak Emo bands still exist in some form, but the moment is over. Panic is just Brendon Urie doing his thing, making pop music and weird tentacle music videos. I respect that, but there isn’t the same cultural relevancy anymore. I more or less can’t listen to post-reunion Fall Out Boy. My Chemical Romance aren’t around as a band, but those guys are, making horror punk and comics for strange humans. Emo isn’t a thing that gets talked about much anymore. It was a trend that’s faded away. Music for teenage girls who grew up and aren’t supposed to need it anymore.
Someday, somebody, possibly me, is going to write a long re-evaluation of these bands as an important part of rock’n’roll music. Someday, we’re going to understand that Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, and From Under a Cork Tree, and probably a couple other albums are classics, that they should make our lists of essential listening. Somebody, somebody, is going to write something really embarrassing about how important those bans are to them. Possibly that’s what I’m doing right now. Those bands are so important to me. I don’t know what I can do to make you understand.
I’m not going to say that they saved my life. There are a lot of people who say that about MCR, and I love those people, and I love MCR, but that wasn’t my experience. They didn’t keep me alive, but they defined what my life was in some important ways. They continue to inform what my life is. They shaped me in profound ways that are hard to explain because I internalized this shit at such a young age. I don’t know who I’d be if I hadn’t listened to these bands when I did, and I am incredibly grateful for their influence.
God, that sounds so pathetic. That sounds so emo. Fuck.
Enough about that — it’s 2017, and I was lecturing about Modern Baseball.
(Part of proving that something was important is showing that it influenced what came next. Being influential is in itself an achievement, leaving aside the merit of what was influenced.)
Modern Baseball are not a good band. I love them with my entire heart. The more I consider it, the more certain I am that both of those things are true. Modern Baseball are definitely not good, but I care about them more than so many artists that are objectively much better. Modern Baseball mean so much to me.
I really can’t figure out how to explain this, which makes writing an essay about it kind of a terrible idea, but I do know that this is an important thought that I want to share with everyone. Modern Baseball matter. An incredible amount. Unreasonably so.
I’m listening to Modern Baseball’s latest album again, for maybe the fifty-seventh time, maybe the eighty-sixth, maybe the three thousand and twelfth. The first half dozen times I didn’t like it nearly as well as their old stuff, and even after it started to break through, I was still deeply skeptical about it’s overall quality. I’m still not sure. I just know it’s something I listen to a lot because I like the way listening to it makes me feel. It doesn’t make me feel good exactly, that’s definitely a simplification, maybe downright wrong. It doesn’t make me feel good, but it makes the rest of my room sound like the inside of my head, and that might be the best thing an album can do.
This isn’t a lyrical phenomena, not really. Like, we’ll get to the lyrics, I got to the lyrics eventually, but this phenomena is operating on other more accessible levels. This is what rock music is supposed to sound like to me in the year 2017.
It isn’t the most interesting thing, but that’s the point. They aren’t really trying anything new. This isn’t experimental, isn’t pushing any boundaries, isn’t making me question what rock music can or should be. At the same time it isn’t obnoxiously referential, isn’t trying to be retro or some shit. They’re just doing their thing, which is good and firm. They’re four young men with instruments making noise and singing about feelings. They are Modern Baseball, and it’s not great, except for how it’s perfect.
I just realized, that I should possibly explain some basic facts about Modern Baseball. They’re a band from Philadelphia, or at least they were. They’re on hiatus now, and who knows what that means. Their first album, Sports, is very uneven, but it’s only half an hour, and they were very young. It still has something, a spark of something worth pursuing. Their second album, You’re Gonna Miss It All, is a gem, and I will explain why in a bit. I didn’t like their third, and possibly final album Holy Ghost, but now I love it. I cannot tell you what has changed about me to make that happen, but it feels important.
They have two singer/songwriters, Brendan Lukens and Jake Ewald. I cannot tell their voices apart unless I try really hard, or I’ve seen the music video, and even then I have a hard time keeping them straight. They both have reedy emo boy voices, and sing about similar things. Their bass player looks like Martin Starr’s character in Freaks and Geeks — I mean this as a compliment. Their drummer is older, and sometimes sings too, but in like, a screamo way, like how Pete Wentz sometimes sings on Fall Out Boy songs. If you want to learn actual things about the band, this video about the recording of their last album is very good.
I don’t actually know a whole lot about these dudes. I’ve considered following them on twitter, doing something to make them more like humans, but I sort of like the distance. It’s useful, considering I can only give their band backhanded compliments. So much of my enjoyment of their thing is the idea that these guys are my peers, that we’re about the same age, and responding to a similar sort of cultural experiences, and if that isn’t true, I don’t really want to find out.
I am not trying to tell you about Modern Baseball the humans. I am barely trying to tell you about Modern Baseball the band. I’m trying to tell you about Modern Baseball the experience. This is about me, and various phenomena that exist only in my head, not four dudes in Philly. They abbreviate their band to MoBo, which I think looks stupid, and am not doing, even though it would mean I would have to type less.
I should talk about the lyrics, but I don’t know where to start. My love for this band is not literary. There are no lines that have really stuck with me. I can sing along to a song that’s playing, but couldn’t parrot the words back without the melody as a guide. My favorite thing is how ordinary, dull, and specific things are.
Their strengths as lyricists is a sort of nostalgia for the recent past. Their lyrics are full of stories about things that happened, and how those days felt, and they include a lot of small observations that aren’t really exciting, which make their stories seem real, because if a writer was coming up with details to throw in they’d pick something more interesting. I love the quotidian beauty in their storytelling.
But as soon as I say it, that seems wrong — I love the quotidian beauty in their songwriting, but putting it like that is wrong, it makes it into something it isn’t, makes it into a literary device. Modern Baseball’s lyrics are at once effortless and incredibly self conscious, a combination that shouldn’t be possible, let alone work as well as it does. There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety here, which is relatable, in an unfortunate way. Like, oh, I don’t want to be analyzing myself so heavily, but at least I’m not alone in my misery, there’s some good rock songs about feeling this way. Or maybe not good rock songs, but greatly relatable rock songs, which may be more valuable.
There are plenty of good rock bands, a lot of absolutely great rock bands, but none of them make me feel like this, I don’t feel as reflected in any of those other, maybe better bands. The idea of doing a track-by-track breakdown of You’re Gonna Miss It All sounds Really Extra, but also, like, so is everything that I’m doing, and it might be fruitful. This is the Modern Baseball album I fell for, it’s what drew me in, it’s what I’m most likely to put on if I find myself missing them. I don’t even know if it’s their best album — I’m pretty sure Holy Ghost is more mature sonically and lyrically, a stronger more cohesive album. But maybe I don’t want strong cohesive and mature from Modern Baseball. Maybe I just want You’re Gonna Miss It All, whatever “it all” is — maybe my life before I got semi-obsessed with this band?
I will now undertake a close reading. If you want to listen along it’s on all the streaming places, or bandcamp. I’m not going to make any effort to differentiate the songwriters. There are differences — Brendan has more wordplay, Jake has more storytelling. But they’re more similar than different, and I don’t know what would be gained by reading them as the work of two creators, when my goal is to articulate something about the overall affect of the band.
Somedays the first track, “Fine, Great,” is my favorite Modern Baseball song. It’s such a strong opening lyric, “I hate worrying about the future / Because all of my current problems are based around the past.” I feel that. “Based around the past,” is such an awkward phrasing, but I sort of adore it — it works. It’s a song about awkwardness, and worrying, and lying to yourself and other people. No wonder why I like it so much!
“Broken Cash Machine” gets stuck in my head, and I don’t like it. It has this simple, relentless, annoying guitar riff, that I can’t really describe right, but oh does it get on my nerves, which is good! It’s incessant! The big question in the chorus is, “hey why did I do that / why does everything collapse / even when it’s glued together.” Dudes. If I knew, I would let you know. Damn fine question.
Both these songs also do a thing where they repeat lyrics, but add the word “fuck” to a line they’ve already sung before, for added emphasis. “All my fucking problems are based around the past.” I think this is juvenile and pretty stupid, but also, I love it? A lot? It’s so in character of the whole situations described by the songs. I don’t think this is an intentional style thing, I don’t think they stepped back and were like, hey, if we swear for emphasis that will show how actually unsure of a place this lyric is coming from. I think they just felt like swearing for emphasis, because that’s fun. The authenticity just slays me. I feel it so strongly. I’m living for it.
“Rock Bottom” is a remarkably romantic song considering the title. Maybe it isn’t supposed to be romantic? It’s a perverse sort of millennial romanticism. This is romance for my generation, a declaration that, “There’s no good reason why I should leave your bed tomorrow / We can watch planet earth and brainstorm tattoos.” I know that doesn’t sound like much, but also, it’s perfect. This is The Modern Baseball Phenomena — it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s perfect. Yes, let’s ignore our responsibilities, let’s ignore our illnesses, let’s lie in bed and watch stoner television and imaging about adding art to our bodies that we can’t actually afford. I ache for it.
“Apartment” does this fabulous thing, where it starts slow, and sets a scene, and then offers a rush of words and social anxiety. Slowly, “I looked in your direction for excessive inspection,” and the the hurried panic, “And I could not muster the courage to say a single word.” And then the song rocks out. This is a prime example of the specific storytelling I like so much about their lyrics. I fully believe that this is based off a couple of nights that actually happened, it feels like such a lived in memory. It could all be made up, but why would someone make up a story this mundane? Mundane is a good thing. It makes me think of José Esteban Muñoz’s idea about quotidian utopia, but I’m not going to find a quote from a smart person book for my essay about Modern Baseball. It’s a song about small things. When he finally does gather his nerve, all he asks is, “I was wondering if, maybe, you wanted to hang out tonight / We could make dinner or something.” Not even get dinner, make dinner. Nothing fancy, but people have to eat, right? That sounds so nice — just a simple moment. It’s such a small thing to ask for, and yet the nervousness he has to get through to reach the point where he can ask is so much, which makes the smallness of the ask all the more beautiful.
I don’t have anything to say about “The Old Gospel Choir.” I don’t really understand the title. “Sharp as a tack, but in the sense that I’m not smart, just a prick,” is a solid gold line though. I really don’t have anything to say about, “Notes.” It’s a nice quieter moment in the middle of the album I guess.
“Charlie Black” has another great first line — “I’m pretty good at feeling sorry for myself.” And it’s got an almost killer chorus, with all the “woah-oh-oh”s. It’s a really solid song, a foot tapping song, a pogoing in your living room song. It’s really good, but never quite gets to the next level, because it’s still a Modern Baseball song. There’s something almost restrained in the very texture of the song, something that stops it from kicking into another gear and reaching it’s full potential. I did not intend for that description to be a metaphor for the millennial experience, but like. That wouldn’t be wrong.
I did not realize there was a song called “Timmy Bowers” on the album. It is a very short song — they’re all very short songs. Twelve tracks in twenty-nine minutes! Now that’s what I call punk!
“Going to Bed” is the longest song on the album, at three minutes and five seconds. It’s an oddly jaunty little tune about having to deal with terrible people. Very millennial. The lines, “I’ll admit I’m in the same boat / Caught between my adolescent safety net / And where the world wants me to be,” is a Big Feel. That’s millennial speak for a little bit too close for comfort. Fortunately the rest of the song is goofy enough to laugh it off and keep going.
“Your Graduation” is an honestly awesome story song, and one of the best tracks of the album. It’s a good wordy moody emo song with jam-packed verses and big choruses. There’s even a shouty bit! Totally epic. The graduation in question is, I believe, a high school graduation, presented here as something that still feels recent, just far enough away to produce nostalgia. Complicated nostalgia — like, hey, maybe things weren’t great back then, but it was familiar. The shouty part asks the listener to, “Remember all those countless nights / When I told you I love you / And to never forget it.” There’s something to hold onto, a memory to cling to. But then the very next line, the last line of the shouty part, is “Oh, just forget it.” It’s an abortive attempt at nostalgia, grasping towards it before giving up.
I was struggling to articulate exactly what it is that makes this song hit the way it does, and found myself rewatching the music video, hoping for inspiration. It isn’t a great video (they aren’t a great band!) but it captures something, the image of being unable to communicate to the person sitting next to you. He’s frozen, unable to respond, unable to walk away, unable to talk about his problems, stuck. But that’s almost alright, as a state of being, because there’s something else — the band. The petrified one-sided conversation is intercut with typical music video performance video, which is probably intended to be its own thing, but I don’t want to do that. Taken together there is the petrification, a hopeless nostalgia, that is ultimately abandoned because there is also the band. He lets the person he’s singing to walk away. It’s a frustrated song, but the ultimate decision is to move on, as much as that hurts. It’s about trying to grow, and how much that hurts sometimes.
Or maybe I stared at the lyrics too long, looking for something deeper, and that’s a lot of bullshit. But hey, literary analysis is just bullshitting with conviction. I listened to this song at least seven times in the process of writing the last two paragraphs, and I have very few regrets.
“Two Good Things” is just about perfect. All of the words sound good together. The first lines are, “Trying hard not to look like I’m trying that hard / Failing miserably at everything including that.” The last lines are, “Just walking in circles, replaying high school songs in my head / Because it’s better than lying awake” explains so much about what I love about Modern Baseball. Because I know that feeling, and it’s terrible, and inescapable, and not the worst thing really. It’s frustrating, but survivable. There gets to be a point where replaying high school songs don’t have the same power, they’ve been worn into oblivion. And they’ll gain their power back again, but you need to let them rest, and listen to something else for a while, something that offers the same comfort, but something that hasn’t been rattling around in your head for almost a decade now. Modern Baseball does that for me. In between the first and last lines are a lot of other lines that I like a lot too.
“Pothole” is the soft quiet end to the album. I like the way you can hear his hand moving up and down the neck of the guitar. It gets on my nerves, but I like it. It’s amatuerish and intimate, while the strings in the background is the band at their most polished, a contradiction living in the recording. It trails off, into nothing. The album is over. You’re Gonna Miss It All. Twelve tracks. Twenty-nine minutes.
That isn’t very long. I shouldn’t have written anything specific, I should have ordered you to pull it up and listen to it and come back to me in twenty-nine minutes with your own opinions. Except like, fuck your opinions, this is about my relationship to Modern Baseball as band/concept/way of life.
I don’t know what else there is to say. By now, you either get it, or you don’t. Hell knows I sure don’t understand. There’s this band that sounds like everything I need in my life, but they aren’t that good, and I don’t like telling other people how much I like them, because it makes me seem crazy, and like, I say a lot of shit that might make me seem crazy, but this seems more personal. This semi-shitty defunct “emo” band says so much about my life. Too much. Much too much, it’s overwhelming, I can’t stand it.
I love it. This contradiction is key to emo as a genre — the feeling of loving something so much that it hurts, loving things that cause you pain, holding onto things that hurt you for reasons you can’t really make sense of, and holding onto that confusion, and loving it too. To quote the American proto-emo poet Stephen Crane, “I like it / Because it is bitter / And because it is my heart.”
I don’t know where to go from here. Modern Baseball might never release another note of music. Would I be okay with that? I don’t know. Will I keep coming back to these albums years from now, will they make me think of the years between graduating college and starting grad school, the same way Panic!’s first album is an aural montage of everything I didn’t hate about seventh grade? Or will they fade out of rotation, songs showing up on shuffle only to get skipped past, unless I’m doing the dishes or driving, and can’t swipe onto the next track.
Venture into prophesy — ten years from now, they play a reunion show at First Ave, and I have to talk Gus into going with me. I’ll be thirty-five, the boys on the stage will be thirty-something, not boys, but grown men, still singing songs about high school romances, and I’ll be a grown woman singing along. Standing in the cold after the show, waiting for the train home, tired feet, but too much adrenaline to sit still. Thrilled, but exhausted and anxious to get back to whatever’s waiting for us at home, a babysitter or a cat who thinks we were gone too long, and should feed her dinner again. I can picture it.
Or maybe I forget all about them. Maybe I move on, and they move on, and we all forget about this thing that happened. It’s hard to say. Right now I’m still living through the uncertain years, and Modern Baseball is the perfect soundtrack for that.