Lukens — who formed the pop-punk quartet with co-songwriter/guitarist Jacob Ewald, bassist Ian Farmer, and drummer Sean Huber in 2012 — sought treatment for alcohol abuse and depression last summer, completing his program just days before the band went into the studio to record the highly anticipated follow-up to 2014’s You’re Gonna Miss It All.
Holy Ghost is a record that tackles the personal highs and lows for Modern Baseball, moving past the lighthearted, smart-ass, and relatable lyrics into far more emotional territory. Ultimately, the catharsis came as the band poured all their struggles into their songs, with six from Ewald making up the first side and Lukens contributing five on his side.
“We’re at the point now that we’re diving deep enough that it has become healing for us, rather than just calling out people like in our old records,” Lukens says.
The shift in tone and subject matter began on last fall’s The Perfect Cast EP, with Lukens singing “That’s no way out / You can’t find help in a bottle or a cut” on “The Waterboy Returns.”
For Holy Ghost, he approached the songs as individual chapters of his own bipolar story, showing the turbulence he felt as the different moods came and went, shifting rapidly darker.
“These songs are short, and a lot of it is because I wanted to show these little manic or depressive moments when it seems everything is exploding,” Lukens says.
“The way I was looking at it was these are the little phases of my illness, my bipolar, me feeling envy or greed or jealousy. I wanted to portray the little moments of myself,” he says. “Whether that’s in ‘Coding These To Lukens,’ where I’m pushing away everyone who’s helping me or in ‘Apple Cider I Don’t Mind,’ when I’m finally accepting all the help everyone is offering me and realizing it’s a day-to-day battle.”
The album closes with its longest song, “Just Another Face,” which felt to Lukens like a summary of his full experience, from sinking into depression and self-medicating (“I’m a waste of time and space, drifting through my selfish ways”) to making the commitment to change (“It’s time to confront this face to face”) to forging a new path forward after treatment (“We’re proud of what’s to come”).
“That was the last song that I wrote, and I knew I wanted it to be longer and encompass the entire story of my half of the record,” he says.
The band chose the Holy Ghost title as something that could be the bridge between the album’s two halves, connecting with both Ewald’s title song, a memorial for his late grandfather, who was a minister,
and the feeling of being overshadowed that colors Lukens’ songs.
It’s not just the thematic territory that sets Holy Ghost apart from Modern Baseball’s first two albums. The band brought an elevated musical ambition to the project, incorporating new influences and sounds to broaden the pop-punk palette.
“We wanted to create something that was a step above what we’ve done before,” Lukens says. “We’ve always been determined to do that; we just didn’t know if we were going to make it or not. I’m more proud of Holy Ghost than anything I’ve ever created, and we’re all on that same page.”
To help push their boundaries, Modern Baseball brought in an outside producer for the first time, recording with Joe Reinhart (Hop Along, Joyce Manor) at Headroom Studios in the band’s Philadelphia home.
“Working with Joe was so amazing. He really handled us so, so well,” Lukens says. “He pushed us to write the record that we wanted to write and get deeper and work harder and explore our craft a little more intensely.”
Modern Baseball is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, May 31, at The Pressroom.