12 Desperate Straight Lines
Label: Merge Records
It’s not been fun times lately for Michael Benjamin Lerner, the bespectacled frontman of Telekinesis. A broken romance, a cracked-up tour van, temporary deafness in one ear – it’s no wonder he spirited himself away overseas in order to focus on his songwriting, though Berlin in winter sounds like less of an escape than a sentence. This cloistering didn’t altogether work; the material on sophomore release 12 Desperate Straight Lines coalesced only after a restorative period of healing and touring back in the States.
The first words of the album – “We fell in love in the summer/ By the springtime we were done…” – say everything about the purpose and direction of this record. It’s a funny little break-up album; the hurt is jaunty, the bitterness fleet of foot. With nine of the 12 tracks coming in under the three-minute mark, Lerner chases down the music of his chipper melancholia in quick succession. Opener “You Turn Clear in the Sun” begins with briskly paced acoustic strumming, switches to bass and percussive drumstick clicks in the second verse, adding the off-key pings of a toy piano in the bridge. By the latter half of the song, Telekinesis is in “full band” mode, finishing it off with repeated hits to a splash cymbal. It’s a zippy lesson in start-small-end-big songwriting that makes for an eager listen. The following track, “Please Ask for Help,” perks the ear in an entirely different way, borrowing the trademark-able bass and guitar effects of Disintegration-era Cure (Lerner confesses to listening obsessively to the album and it shows). In place of Robert Smith’s lovably gloomy affectations, Lerner’s vocals are of a geekier charm, conveying the feeling of thoughts coming too fast, hiccuped by sharp intakes of breath. The effect is darkly earnest.
Though the compositions are short, it is not a consequence of sloppy songwriting but instead a stage for tight experimentation, supervised and collaborated on in this effort by producer (and Death Cab for Cutie lead guitarist) Chris Walla. “Fever Chill” is a moody one, transitioning from acoustic snarler through a dreamy, off-rhythm lyric-loop of, “When we wake up/ We wake up/ Oh we wake up/ When we wake up/ When we wake up,” directly into an assault of stompy, petulant bass thuds. “50 Ways,” referencing Paul Simon’s 1975 hit, seesaws between a halting, interrogatory guitar melody and grinding, bass-driven choruses. Lyrically too, Lerner is concise and cutting. From “I never loved you/ I’ve never loved anyone” in “You Turn Clear in the Sun” to “I’m not gonna let you down/ But I’m not gonna help you up” in “Please Ask for Help” to “You never get things done/ Yeah I think you’re lazy/ And I cannot love/ I cannot love you” in the bass-jumpy “I Cannot Love You” (a reverbed Lerner here sounding curiously like Perry Farrell), these certainly aren’t the most grandiose sentiments in the world but they are true ones that immediately call up some tangly memories in one’s own mind. For 12 Desperate Straight Lines is essentially a handful of bitter pills made palatable through confection; the “fuck you” sounds pretty cool when it’s so catchy. Say it again!
And while there is great value in catchiness, there is also an implicit superficiality. The “super-pop nugget” approach is something Lerner has perfected to great success; and yet on a record such as this that asks to be a concept album, it feels something more like breaking up via IM than an honest-to-goodness, well, disintegration. There is a benefit to longer thoughts; the hope with Telekinesis is that, from here, Lerner stretches out and gets complicated. I’m anxious to see what’s at the end of his gray rainbow.
by Stacey Pavlick