The dude-librarian aspect of his press photos is no doubt at least partially responsible, but it’s really tempting to think of Michael Benjamin Lerner as the vessel into which Ben Gibbard’s spirit passed once Death Cab For Cutie began its decline toward self-satisfied smarm. Lerner’s lyrics are less literate than Gibbard’s, or less literary, but he arguably knows how to write a better hook — start with "50 Ways," "Car Crash," and the obliging post-punk stomp "Please Ask For Help." In any case there’s nothing wrong with lyrical simplicity: He’s a pop singer, not the poet laureate. (Which would you prefer, the candor of "I Cannot Love You" or the consolation-reacharound of DCFC’s "One Day You Will Be Loved"? An undergraduate English paper could be written on why the former makes Lerner come off as less of an asshole.)
Death Cab is only one point of comparison, and admittedly not the most illuminating as sound goes. There’s a whole hodgepodge of gentlemanly indie-rock precedent to call back to: some Elliott Smith ("Fever Chill") and some Beulah ("Car Crash") and some New Order ("Country Lane"). But the way in which 12 Desperate Straight Lines is satisfying is rather like the way Death Cab used to be satisfying, the way it conveys something real and affecting about difficult loves without insisting or pretending to any particular hipness. If Lerner is more content to caption his urgent, concise ditties with uncomplicated witticisms ("I can see straight through you / you turn clear in the sun") and dorky record-collector jabs ("Paul Simon probably said it the best / there truly are 50 ways"), it serves us just as well.
The charm of these songs won’t last forever. They’ll have their season in your heart or car stereo, their refrains will seep gently into your vocabulary, and at some point you’ll stop needing them, but it’s welcome company while it lasts. It’s way harder to pull off this kind of crunchy tenderness than you’d think.