Surprisingly enough, one of the most telling and illustrative details of Car Seat Headrest’s incredibly emotional aesthetic is, ironically, the origin of the project’s namesake. It is said that Toledo adopted this title due to the fact that he recorded the material found in his eleven self-released albums in the backseat of his car as an attempt to obtain privacy and secrecy, which, in turn, succeeds in further emphasizing the intense feelings of yearning, isolation, and cynicism that his music tends to portray. These songs would go on to create Teens of Style – Toledo’s first collaboration with Matador records – and despite being re-recorded, the album thankfully still had that addictive, intimate lo-fi sound reminiscent of that backseat studio. However, the component that carried over well into Teens of Denial – Toledo’s first official album for Matador – was his songwriting, which, despite its often personal and direct nature, works concurrently as something in which an audience is free to relate with or simply entertain. Toledo’s honesty and versatility is what makes Teens Of Denial one of the finest examples of what it truly means to be a cynical, yet fearful twenty-something simultaneously indulged in and disgusted with the modernity of life, passionately told by the poster child himself.
Teens Of Denial revolves around several themes, with self-deprecation, drug abuse, and depression being the most prominent. However, they are not presented in such vague, aggressive ways, even though the brash, raging instrumentals hint at an angry, impatient spectator of the apparent injustice of the world and its musings. It’s actually quite the opposite, as Toledo’s way of expressing his ideas are direct and highly intelligent, and much like his previous work, his lyrics and brash orchestration remain incredibly self-aware. In fact, it is his personality that makes Car Seat Headrest function, and we see it repeatedly interacting with the aforementioned themes throughout the album. Opener “Fill in the Blank” remains one of the most memorable due to its killer guitar, as well as one of the most brilliantly and deceptively personal, as Toledo both denies and justifies his right to be depressed. Many of the songs on this album wouldn’t exist if not for the aspects of life that are considered part of growing and maturing, which probably explains the references to drug use in “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” as well as the questions in love and relationships in the bright, melodic track “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An).” The former also contains one of the many profound two-liners in the album, as Toledo assumes “its more than what you bargained for / but its a little less than what you paid for,” while the latter has some of the most inspired chord progressions I’ve heard in quite some time.
At its core, however, Teens of Denial remains a dense, sprawling narrative, as many tracks serve as a sort of audio-biography for Toledo. For instance, the slower track “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School For Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t A Problem)” – yes, real title – has Toledo explaining his first psychedelic experience as a disappointment, considering he did not feel enlightened or transformed, only more aware of his current unfortunate state of existence. The refrain is absolutely brilliant, as it oscillates between his need of friends with his need of something synthetic to take him far away from them, both mentally and emotionally. “The Ballad of The Costa Concordia” is the magnum opus of the album, jam-packed in its eleven minute duration with everything from a re-imagining of Dido’s “White Flag” to lines upon lines of Toledo listing all the fears he has for the future and lamenting all the things he isn’t able to do on his own quite yet, but are still required of an adult human being. The honesty and genuine fear shines through, which is also emphasized with Toledo explaining, like a child, that he stays up late every night “out of some general protest/ but with no one to tell you to come to bed/ its not really a contest.” The party hating track “Vincent” – about “wanting to leave but not wanting to go home” – leads into the introspective “Drunk Drivers/ Killer Whales,” which are the two best tracks on the album, at least for us. The addictive guitar twang and brash nature of “Vincent” completely offsets Toledo’s pained wails towards the end of “Killer Whales,” and remain the most evocative of Toledo’s influence and overall way of thinking.
The length of this review is already evident of the sheer amount of things to be said about Teens Of Denial, and to say them all would just be redundant. In fact, that might be the only thing truly worth complaining about with Car Seat Headrest – that at times its a bit too much way too fast, with references, personal anecdotes, and swirling, rampaging instrumentals coming in waves all at once. However, despite the fact that Toledo pours out his soul in this way, he never really asks you to visit the most honest, visceral, and vulnerable parts of your mind along with him. Though, with this sort of music, it doesn’t hurt to do so every now and again.
photo courtesy of artist