Car Seat Headrest ‘Teens of Denial’ – Review

25 Jun

Car Seat Headrest is the pet project of prolific band camp-er Will Toledo. His ‘proper’ debut, December’s ‘Teens of Style’ was a compilation of re-recorded songs that served as an introduction for a wide audience. Now, only a few months later, we have his first release of brand new material since signing for a label, ‘Teens of Denial’. As its title suggests, the album is closely linked to its predecessor; Toledo is still painfully self-aware, still painfully obsessed with his own mortality and still painfully self-indulgent. While the records are clearly twins, they are twins with different personalities and interests. It’s more of a straight up rock record than ‘Teens of Style’ – it’s got a cleaner sound, the riffs are thicker and deeper, the bass is creamier and the arrangements are generally less quirky and distracting.

Some of these songs tell relatable narratives about growing up and some serve straight up lyrical unloading and venting. Toledo is a fine storyteller and frequently blurs the line between fiction and autobiography, to the disarming point where you’re never quite sure of his sincerity or motives. About halfway through the epic ‘Ballad of Costa Concordia’, a break up ballad that focuses on personal psychosis, Toledo starts singing Dido’s ‘White Flag’ and doesn’t stop till he’s sung the whole chorus. It’s a breathtaking moment, not least because ‘White Flag’ is a brilliant song that rarely gets heard anywhere these days, and about the last thing you expect to hear it is on a Car seat Headrest song. Really though It speaks to Toledo’s willingness to play with his audience’s expectations and the tunnel vision that seems him doing exactly what he wants, how he wants.

On ‘Fill in the Blank’ he has a conversation with himself, moaning about *fill in the blank* before putting himself back in his place – ‘you have no right to be depressed, you haven’t tried hard enough to like it!’ This is Car Seat Headrest’s opening gambit, and the album gets no less conflicted as it rambles on. On ‘Vincent’ he takes sadistic pleasure in the unpleasant hordes of tourists that flock to his college town every summer. On ‘Joe Gets Kicked out of School…’ He rattles through the pros and cons of drug use with some of the most on point lyrics about the subject I’ve ever heard. At another point he ponders his own incompetence by using an extended metaphor relating to the sinking of the Costa Concordia (a disaster largely believed to have happened due to the negligence of the ship’s captain). This is just how Will Toledo’s brain operates, he’s forever battling his own anxieties and thinking of unusual ways to relate that experience.

As great as ‘Teens of Denial’ is, it is frustrating at times. In the good ol’ 1980s, the decade to which Toledo clearly owes so much, ‘Teens of Denial’ would have been a great 40 minute, 8 track album with a handful of really good b-sides to go with it. The songs would have been trimmed in length by necessity. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times as much as anything else Toledo sings about that this is such an indulgent record. Almost every track could stand to lose a minute or two and twelve of these songs in a row is just too much when they are this crammed with ideas. After nearly nine minutes of ‘Cosmic Powers’ you get eleven minutes of ‘Costa Concordia’ followed by six more minutes of ‘Connect the Dots’. The second half of ‘Teens of Denial’ is just exhausting, and that holds it back for being a truly classic 21st century rock record.

Taken in smaller doses, it’s still one of the most thrilling things you will hear all year. Whip-smart, self-deprecating, funny and likeable, Toledo has one of the most distinctive lyrical voices in contemporary indie. The album’s best lyric comes during a reflective moment on the otherwise brutal ‘destroyed by hippie powers.’ “What happened to that chubby little kid who smiled a lot and loved the beach boys?” He could have left that as a rhetorical question, hanging in the air – the song’s glorious harmonies would have hinted at the answer (he never really left). Instead he provides his own answer; ‘what happened is I killed that fucker and I took his name and I got new glasses.’ Like much of what Car Seat Headrest does, the line is overkill (he’s even annotated the lyric on Genius.com to provide context) but it’s also brilliant. The challenge in future will be learning to refine his wilder instincts without dampening the brilliant idiosyncrasies that define Car Seat Headrest.

8.5/10

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