Teens of Denial
Reviewed by: Max Miller
Car Seat Headrest will surely make a big splash in indie rock circles with the release of Teens Of Denial. The band, centered around songwriter Will Toledo, already made waves with Teens Of Style, their first full-length for Matador Records, which was comprised of re-recorded songs from Toledo’s prolific Bandcamp output, which dates back as far as 2010. Teens Of Denial may be the first batch of new Car Seat Headrest tunes financed by a “major” indie label, but it houses the same mix of history-indebted influence and unique songwriting quirks that can be found on independent releases like How To Leave Home or Nervous Young Man.
That debt to history is why Car Seat Headrest will undoubtedly go over quite well with today’s rock fans. Every year, a handful of rock bands accrue oodles of hype for acknowledging that they have a well-curated record collection (see for example: The War On Drugs, Beach Slang, Titus Andronicus, Tame Impala, Parquet Courts and so forth). On Teens Of Denial, I hear nods to the Beach Boys, Wilco, Pavement, LCD Soundsystem and plenty of other heritage acts (including a direct reference to the Cars’ “Just What I Needed” that landed Toledo in hot water and will not be included on the official release). But what makes Car Seat Headrest a band truly deserving of praise is Toledo’s charming, thoughtful songwriting which speaks honestly to his generation instead of hiding behind several layers of nostalgia.
Toledo’s main lyrical fixation is self-loathing, which he confronts with a sardonic wit in order to examine why so many people go through life feeling kicked in the ass by themselves and everyone else. On barnstorming opener “Fill In The Blank,” where Toledo tries to shout down his own depression by reminding himself that there’s still a wealth of experience in the world he’s yet to encounter, he sings, “If I were split in two, I would just take my fists/ So I could beat up the rest of me.” On “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” he attempts to analyze — without making up excuses for — the impulse to drink excessively and still want to drive home, in spite of the obvious dangers. Toledo concludes that it’s all part-and-parcel to the complex cycle of using alcohol to avoid self-hatred, only for it to create more problems: “You built yourself up against other’s feelings, and it left you feeling empty as a car coasting downhill.”
Substance abuse is another major theme on Teens Of Denial, with the one-two punch of “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” and “(Joe Gets Kicked Out Of School For Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t A Problem)” illustrating how young people use drugs as a means of escape, only for them to amplify feelings of anxiety, self-loathing, isolation and depression. On the latter, Toledo presages “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” by noting, “Hangovers feel good when I know it’s the last one/ Then I feel so good that I have another one.” This is followed by a line that exemplifies his use of understated humor to address more serious themes: “Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms/ I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit/ In a stupid-looking jacket.” The song ends with the glorious sing-along coda of “Drugs are better with friends/ Are better with drugs/ Are better with friends/ Are better with…”
While the lyrics may be the focal point of Car Seat Headrest’s music, that doesn’t mean the instrumentation is any less meticulously composed. In fact, the band often uses instrumental breaks to finish Toledo’s train of thought in the rare moments when words fail him. On “Vincent,” Toledo cries, “And half the time, I’m like THIS—,” only for drummer Andrew Katz to launch into a jazzy break which, paired with feedback from the guitar, finishes the thought better than any lyrics could. Similarly, Toledo sings, “Death is playing his xylophone ribs for me,” on “1937 State Park” just before a synthesized xylophone solo underscores the grim-yet-playful imagery. While Car Seat Headrest draw a wellspring of diverse sounds from the standard rock setup of guitars, bass, drums and pianos, several songs also feature dramatic trumpet and trombone arrangements from Jon Maus, while “Connect the Dots (The Saga of Frank Sinatra)” includes a ripping saxophone break from Jim DeJoie.
Although Teens Of Denial is a sprawling, ambitious record with several extended cuts, it doesn’t drag on too much for an album that stacks an eight-minute song, an eleven-minute song and a six-minute song near the end of the tracklisting. That eleven-minute song, “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia,” is like an album in its own right — the eye of the hurricane that is the record’s other eleven tracks. Beginning slow and somber, it unfolds into an expansive thesis on seeking redemption when you’re not even sure you deserve it. Toledo uses the tragic sinking of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia in 2012 as an extended metaphor for drowning in self-hatred and doubt, replete with an interpolation of Dido’s “White Flag,” of all things. As the song ramps up around the halfway point, Toledo asks how he was supposed to know how to avoid the mistakes one makes during a lifetime, and to do all that was asked of him, and how he’s ever supposed to forgive himself when he feels like no one else will. This somehow leads into a head-spinning dance breakdown that analyzes the course of mankind, the music industry and individual lives before Toledo triumphantly declares, “I GIVE UP!” The moment of catharsis and relief floats on a sea of reverberant organ notes as he sings, “And you wake up trembling/ From a dream where I swam into the river/ I reach out and hold you in my arms/ I love you, I love you, I love you.”
Frankly, there is a metric shit-ton of lyrical and musical turns to unpack on Teens Of Denial — far more than I ever could parse through without making this review drag on even more painfully long than it already has. Besides, half of the fun is coming back to the album and finding some new insight or instrumental flourish you had missed on previous listens. Though it’s often a cliche, in the case of Teens Of Denial, it’s actually true: This album rewards multiple, in-depth listens.
There are a lot of ambitious rock albums coming out these days which try to convince you they are important by dint of their over-the-top mimicry of past classics. By making themselves seem as big as albums like Born To Run, Sgt. Pepper’s or Exile On Main St., they seem to shout, “SEE? Rock music isn’t dead — if anything, it’s more relevant than ever!” But too often these records are merely using the shovel of nostalgia to dig their own graves. Teens Of Denial certainly could not exist without the canon of rock ‘n’ roll preceding it. But Car Seat Headrest do not use that canon to limit themselves. They ground themselves in the now just as equally as they wink at the past, creating a record that should appeal to young people just as easily as older fans. By delving into their emotions in a way that links them not to rock songwriters of the past, but to the continuum of human existence, Will Toledo and his band have made an album that is truly timeless.