Car Seat Headrest & Making Something Timeless

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For the past three or four years, I’ve set aside time in December to create a list of what I think are the best albums of the year. I’m not entirely sure why I do this. I don’t really like the idea of making music a competition, and I also understand (with the help of empirical evidence) that nobody really cares about my opinion on the matter. I suppose it’s a way to help me organize my own opinions while creating a reference I can read at a later date. Sometimes I need to look back through my favorite albums and the list comes in handy.

These things vary wildly depending on music industry trends and my own tastes. There is really only one common thread I can find in all of them: Every year, an album or two that wasn’t on my radar manages to beat out more anticipated albums for top spots. In 2013, it was Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap. In 2014, Sun Kil Moon’s Benji. In 2015, Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell. This year, it’s going to be Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial.

This is, without a doubt, my favorite part about music as a whole. The best feeling in the world is getting absolutely blindsided by an artist you didn’t know existed just minutes earlier. It’s this phenomenon of love at first sight that keeps me wanting to write about music.

I have a sweet spot when writing about anything. Writing about something I hate is no fun. I don’t like to trash anyone’s work, and critics that take joy in bashing everything get on my nerves. At the same time, writing about things I absolutely love is nearly impossible. I can never manage to put into words what my favorite albums mean to me or why I love them so much. I’ve written about a few albums on this site that have become all-time favorites. The trick is to get in on the ground floor and iron out my feelings before I inevitably put the album on a pedestal and make it impossible to sift through the reverie to assemble anything coherent. For this reason, I’m writing about Teens of Denial quicker than I’d like to. I quite literally need to get my thoughts out before I fall too in love and can’t manage any kind of discourse.

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I won’t get into the career history of Car Seat Headrest. You can read about that elsewhere. It’s well-documented. In short, the band has been a one man show. Will Toledo self-released a whopping 11 projects from 2010 to 2014 via his Bandcamp page. Often weird and rarely accessible, these lo-fi releases (many of which were recorded in the back of his parents’ mini-van, hence the band name) garnered him a cult following. Toledo leveraged that into a September 2015 deal with Matador Records. His first label release was 2015’s Teens of Style, a de facto greatest hits collection consisting of re-recorded versions of the best cuts from his Bandcamp catalog.

Here we are in 2016, and 23-year-old Toledo has his first “real” album, recorded in a studio with the help of a producer and a full band. Despite boasting a catalog of a dozen releases, this was uncharted territory for Car Seat Headrest. Gauging the pulse of long-time fans, it seemed that nobody was sure what to expect or if it would work.

What came is Teens of Denial, a 70-minute barrage of well-crafted introspection and ambition with classic rock sensibilities… coming from the king of bizarre bedroom pop. This is my introduction to Toledo and Car Seat Headrest. Listening back at earlier releases, it’s hard to believe this is the same guy.

My favorite album of all time is Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It possesses that rare balance of sprawling instrumentation with sharp, thoughtful, introspective lyrics. It’s something I look for in all of my favorite albums, whether they’re from Wilco or Kendrick Lamar. It’s something that Teens of Denial has.

The ability to sound timeless on the first listen is something I’d bet most musicians would kill for. From the opening notes of “Fill In The Blank,” the album sounds like a classic.

“You have no right to be depressed / You haven’t tried hard enough to like it / Haven’t seen enough of this world yet / But it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts,” sings Toledo to himself on the opening track. He’s dealing with the classic grapple between reality and the desire to pout and wallow. The struggle between brain and heart. I’ve been there, realizing I don’t really have a good reason to be miserable, but still “wanting” to be. It sucks when you’re struggling and someone makes you feel that your feelings are invalid, even if that person is yourself. “I’ve got a right to be depressed,” he finally sings in the outro. The devil on his shoulder wins.

This dynamic of Toledo playing both the mentor and the mentee is something that continues throughout the album, but is perhaps at its most apparent here. It’s as if the listener is a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on a long conversation our protagonist is having with himself. We’re reading Toledo’s diary over his shoulder. “Note to self: You have no right to be depressed. (You haven’t tried hard enough to like it!)”

The album takes a funkier turn on “Vincent,” which boasts a two and a half minute intro that slowly swells from metronome-like plucks to skittering percussion and screeching guitars. The track finds Toledo dissecting the effects of his depression and the ways in which he copes with them.

In the back of a medicine cabinet

 You can find your life story

 And your future in the side effects

 I haven’t played guitar in months

 My strings all broke

He notes that the Wikipedia page for clinical depression features a Vincent van Gogh portrait before admitting “Well, it helps to describe it.” He then finds himself at a party, trying to drown his sorrows before realizing he’s only made things worse. “I had a bright tomorrow / I spent it all today.”

A major theme of the album is coming of age. Things get wild on “Destroyed By Hippie Powers,” where we see Toledo grow up and get swallowed by sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. On the lawsuit-dodging “Just What I Needed/Not What I Needed” Toledo bemoans lame advice. (“Get a job, eat an apple, it’ll work itself out.”) On the epic “Drugs With Friends,” he details his first (and last) experience with psychedelic drugs.

Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms

 I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of s–t

 In a stupid-looking jacket

I walked around town and thought I was in Sodom

 There were filthy people seeking comfort for their bodies

 It was so obscene

This kind of witty, matter-of-fact delivery is a thread throughout the album, and reminds me of the aforementioned Sun Kil Moon record, Benji. The simple nature of Toledo’s lyrics is deceiving. On the surface, complex lyrics may seem more difficult to write, but this kind of distilled, potent take on life is much more impressive. “Drugs With Friends” might be my song of the year if it weren’t nearly instantly upstaged by another massive single.

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Life reaches a new low on the fantastic “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales.” Toledo has gotten so deft at managing his depression that he’s now a “f — –g pro,” so much so that his parents would be proud. His songwriting chops are in Michael Jordan mode.

We are not a proud race

 It’s not a race at all

 We’re just trying

 I’m only trying to get home

 Drunk drivers, drunk drivers

 This is not a good thing

 I don’t mean to rationalize

 Or try and explain it away

 It’s not okay

 Drunk drivers, drunk drivers

In a literal sense, he’s chiding himself for driving home after too many drinks. He knows it was a terrible thing to do, but he was “only trying to get home.” In the same sense, we all do things that are bad in order to simply help us get by. In some way or another, we’re all drunk drivers just trying to “get home.” You may be thinking “Yeah, but that’s not something to celebrate.”

So is Toledo.

“It doesn’t have to be like this,” proclaims the explosive chorus, before Toledo urges himself to leave behind everything he uses to distract him from the trials of real life. “It’s not too late / Turn off the engine / Get out of the car / And start to walk.”

In case you feel you’ve pinned things down, “1937 State Park” features Death playing his “xylophone ribs” amidst Air Jordan references. “Unforgiving Girl” is a classic rock love song, admiring how a girl can be a calming force in a sea of calamity. “Cosmic Hero” opens with warm horns and closes with triumphant guitar riffs and the assurance that “If you need some peace and quiet / There is room for all in heaven.”

Teens of Denial reaches a head on “The Ballad of Costa Concordia,” an 11-minute Bohemian Rhapsody-esque marathon in which Toledo likens himself to the guy that ran a cruise ship onto the rocky Italian coast in 2012. He reaches full surrender, feeling that his life has proverbially run ashore. “Maybe you think I’ll learn from my mistake / But not this time / It’s just gonna break me.” He chronicles his mistakes, both of the literal and of the metaphorical nature.

How was I supposed to know how to use a tube amp?

 How was I supposed to know how to drive a van?

 How was I supposed to know how to ride a bike without hurting myself?

 ….

 How was I supposed to know how to steer this ship?

 How the hell was I supposed to steer this ship?!

 It was an expensive mistake.

Toledo doubles down on his surrender on “Connect The Dots,” actually taking joy in his defeat. “We’re never gonna get a job,” he cheers. After all the tribulations, it feels like we’re left with an oh well and a decision to take an “ignorance is bliss” approach. It seems that the world has finally broken him and he’s prepared to just give up, pretend that none of this is happening, and live as a “teen of denial.” I suppose I know the feeling.

Perhaps it’s fitting that after a veritable musical Odyssey the closing track is just 81-seconds long and sees Toledo back at home in Colonial Williamsburg, biking down Duke of Gloucester Street, thinking about a horse he saw, and realizing he’s no different from anyone else. Therein lies one of the greatest appeals of this album: All of this is universal.

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As I said before, I don’t really like when music becomes a competition. That being said, I hope this get some major recognition. This is flat out better than anything I’ve heard in a long time. In 2010, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy boasted “Power” and “Runaway,” arguably the two best songs of the year. We’re in the same place here with “Drugs With Friends” and “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales.” One album isn’t supposed to have multiple top-tier singles.

Teens of Denial is a staggering work for any artist, especially a 23-year-old having his first real go at things. It almost feels like my generation’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Aside from simply being well-crafted and beautiful, it’s universally introspective and razor sharp. It’s laser-focused in the right places and it’s loose and rough around the edges exactly where it needs to be. If the rock stylings aren’t your taste, the masterful songwriting will be. Toledo was staring down a tall task with his first major release, and it seems he’s elevated his game.

In one sense, this album was much less risky than the dozen that preceded it. From a musical standpoint, Teens of Denial is much more “up the middle” — clearly built to be more accessible to a wider audience than his hazy bedroom albums were. In another sense, this is easily his riskiest project yet. In his first proper introduction to a wide audience, he had everything to lose and still chose to go the ambitious route. Considering he elected to build a soaring 70-minute album with several tracks in the 6+ minute range, this could’ve been a huge bust. He believed in his own creative compass and doubled down on all of his ideas, fleshing them out to their full potential. Fortunately for Will Toledo and listeners alike, the realization of that potential is worth hearing again and again.