Grief and hopelessness are viruses, slowly destroying our spiritual immune system in preparation for our grand shuffle off this mortal coil. Their sudden onset can be too much to handle, leading to illnesses like cynicism and despair. In the midst of a devastating viral outbreak (represented as breakups and the death of a parent and grandparent), Philadelphia power-pop trio Jukebox the Ghost recorded their third album, Safe Travels. With these 13 tracks, the lads fought against the onslaught of life, death, and maturity with the greatest medicine of all: unceasing optimism.
On Safe Travels, even the band’s purely fluff cuts are much stronger. Album opener “Somebody” is like a more even-keeled leftover from Everything Under the Sun, with the infectiousness centered around a simple piano and pulsating guitar, the perfect complements to the song’s simple message of companionship. “Oh, Emily” sees them hone their sound further, taking a familiar concept (apologizing to a girl whose heart you’ve smashed) and adding layers of regret under the chugging instrumentation and vocalist/guitarist Tommy Siegel’s aw-shucks performance. Where once there was slight hokiness, the shouting harmonies and personal lyrics (“I’m lost at love with everyone, and now’s as good as any place to start”) are flawed and organic.
On the surface, “Man on the Moon” is their most quaint and adorable track to date, with Siegel’s boyish croon reaching maximum cheek pinch-ability. Still, the song works because of just how cute it becomes. It’s just after the knockout punch of hazy instrumentation and comparing yourself to the man on the moon that the feeling of isolation sneaks in. Once it’s inside, though, it’s not a destructive force. Instead, that pain and incompleteness are life-affirming, keeping life as the focus as you ponder your insubstantial existence in the great black void.
Still, the bite of “Man on the Moon” is nothing compared to the vicious combo of “Dead” and “Adulthood”. The latter’s most valuable addition to the album’s emotional and narrative arcs has everything to do with what it doesn’t do. Increasingly joyous waves of cheery, vaguely operatic piano are unleashed, with the listener instinctively waiting for the band’s musings. What comes, though, is neither depressing nor reaffirming, with singer/pianist Ben Thornewill summing up maturity by stating, as matter-of-factly as possible, that “from adulthood, no one survives,” indicating this is our last phase before we’re worm food. Thornewill’s tone leaves it up to the listener to react, either with dread and despair or a dedication that you’ve got plenty of time to perfect being an adult.
Rather than dress up a heartbreaking topic with shimmery sounds, “Dead” infuses a charming concept with hallowed instrumentation. The protagonist of the cut explores life after death, curiously wondering what happens next. What could be overdone, borderline Goth-y, is sweet because it all builds to our ghostly hero imploring the Powers That Be not to make life have meaning or to give us peace in the afterlife; instead, he offers a simple prayer that we all “deserve a unique exit from this world.” Throw in the slow-building rumble of crashing drums and arena-rock guitar, and it adds a sheen of increasing desperation to our hero’s request. The shift in dynamic is a much-needed break and gives the album a moment to reset for much bigger things to come.
You can’t really appreciate the power of the band’s unceasing smile in the face of doom without seeing them at their most devastated. To achieve that end, the band offer up the profoundly uncharacteristic “Devils on Our Side” and “The Spiritual”. The former relies solely on Thornewill and his piano. Already known for gorgeous vocal performances, Thornewill’s newfound level of comfort with his voice lets him forge notes and tones that are as perfect and fragile as crystal, eventually melding with the piano to create an otherworldly harmony. Lyrically, it’s the perfect vehicle for their ponderings on the power of death’s finality, with Thornewill musing, “What’s the use of lying?/The truth itself will speak volumes when we’re dying.” Hope and pain, optimism and doubt swirl together for a heartbreaking experience.
The album’s emotional journey reaches its climax in “The Spiritual”. Though not the album’s best cut, it plays out like a funeral hymn (which the band reportedly performed at drummer Jesse Kristin’s father’s ceremony), offering a sense of finality and closure. But that serenity doesn’t involve metaphysics or philosophy or existentialism; it’s understated, delivered from a place of exhaustion, as if the boys have said their peace and just want some quiet. It pulls back the last remnant of their shiny veneer, revealing not suffering but a dignified calm.
And that’s all you can do in life: keep your head up as the Universe perpetually rains down sorrow. As far as accomplishing that goes, Jukebox the Ghost have won the war, if only temporarily.
Essential Tracks: “Dead”, “Adulthood”, “Devils on Our Side”, and “The Spiritual”