Review Summary: Car Seat Headrest begins with an album full of problems and by the end offers solutions, however temporary they might be.
Last year lo-fi singer/songwriter Will Toledo released his 12th record under the appropriately adapted moniker Car Seat Headrest. It was called Teens of Style; a decent collection indie rock tunes sung in his typically droll, disdainful croon, sometimes it was lively and colorful and other times it was a bit lackluster. Overall I liked the record as it was my first introduction to Car Seat Headrest who apparently is a frighteningly prolific young musician, however I couldn’t foresee Will pushing his sound much further than Teens of Style’s catchy, self-loathing malaise filled aesthetic. It was certainly poetic and punchy but overall I felt like I could hear this sound from several of Car Seat Headrest’s contemporaries and feel just as satisfied.
Will, striking while the iron is hot, comes out swinging for the fences on what appears to be a sort of sister album to Teens of Style, the sprawling, epic and painfully relatable Teens of Denial. An album that’s as musically ambitious as it is knife-in-the-heart gut wrenchingly engaging for anyone in their early to mid-twenties that has no idea what they are doing. The perfect album for anyone drinking too much and staying up too late, then wondering why they are always so tired the next day. It’s an album that’s sad but sad in a way that doesn’t know why it’s sad, because everything is probably okay, or at least it should be, or it probably will be. This is the feeling of the current time in my life. I believe it’s a feeling that a lot of people have felt or will feel at some point and not to mention, the music this time around is absolutely riveting. The songwriting is consistently engaging and dynamic, and the band behind him is in full rock and roll sing-a-long mode, pulling equal influences from classic rock theatrics, punk rock aggressiveness and Pavement era lo-fi mugginess. With Will Toledo front and center in full Morrissey style melancholy mode.
Will starts with a roaring riff reminiscent of something Against Me would likely start one of their albums with and lays his disgust right on the table with his opening lines.
"I’m so sick of
Fill in the blank"
Hey, me too, go figure. In such a hyper saturated world, in a time in your life when everything is so fast, so constant and everyone needing something, why not. Be sick, be pissed, it is okay. What keeps the song from being a generic “I’m sick of x, I’m pissed about y” type song is the chorus. His feelings are being invalidated constantly as it is for a lot of people Will’s age at this point in life.
"You have no right to be depressed.
You haven’t tried hard enough to like it"
The final chorus of the song he defiantly and appropriately says “*** that”. Its smart writing, it’s catchy, the chorus and verses are great and it makes a great point. I might be pissed at this and sad about x and y but that’s okay. They’re my feelings and I’m allowed to feel them, you have no right to tell me I have no right to be depressed. People that are not depressed are not the arbiters of my depression. With aggressively defiant apathy, sharp production, and really killer performances he sets his mission statement for Teens of Denial perfectly.
Most of the writing on this album is very direct, however it’s important to note this album is a mammoth. Running at about an hour and ten minutes Will Toledo’s mental breakdown and drug panic run him into some very ambitious and theatrical places with his songwriting. This I clearly evident on the ode to isolationism “Vincent” a 7 minute long track that starts with a small Pink Floydian guitar hammer on that masterfully breezes through its run time with brilliant vocal refrains, an incredibly funky bassline and feedback buzzes that wouldn’t feel too out of place on a studio punk album.
Will composes songs like a kid with crayons draws on a wall, he’s not confined to typical run times and he’s not afraid to incorporate noise, screams, falsettos, harmonies and everything including the kitchen sink into his album. From the start he takes this idea and runs with it wherever it takes him. Fortunately it takes us to some great musical places. Upon initially seeing the 11 minute run time for “The Ballad of Costa Concordia” it was a bit of a knee jerk. Not only did I not think I would have the patience for a Car Seat Headrest song to be that long but I simply did not think it could be pulled off. However unlikely it seemed this song is absolutely epic and a painfully real dissection of struggling to navigate adulthood.
"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 make dinner for myself?
How was I supposed to know how to hold a job?
How was I supposed to remember to grab my backpack after I set it down to play
How was I supposed to know how to not get drunk every
Thursday, Friday, Saturday
And - why not - Sunday?
How was I supposed to know how steer this ship?
How the hell was I supposed to steer this ship?
It was an expensive mistake"
Really though, how are you? It might seem obvious to some, but these lyrics hit painfully close to home for someone like me. You grow up, go to school, learn things, practice good hygiene, good health, make friends, experience romance, heartbreak and stress but by the time it’s over and real life sets in all you can remember is that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. It’s an arduous and depressing process going through so many failures trying to find yourself, and much like the doomed sea vessel of the title that Will makes several clever sea metaphors with throughout the song (The Costa Concordia), it’s these expensive mistakes that sail you through these tumultuous times in your life. Expertly Will’s lyrics transcend being bratty and hit straight to the heart.
Time and time again his lyrics do this, even on the songs of more modest run times. My favorite track on the album might be the house show anthem “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” a rollicking, loud, and fairly aggressive track detailing doing too much drugs, feeling out of place and kicking ass at house shows. I have to add, I would be so remiss if I didn’t mention the cowbell, it makes the song, and seriously you got to love that cowbell. This theme of drug panic is used to great effect time and time again “Drugs With Friends”, “Drunk Driver/Killer Whales”, “1937 State Park”, and “Connect the Dots” all detail this paranoia so accurately. My friends are on drugs, that worries me. I’m on drugs, and that worries them. He details the paradox of drugs solving your problems while making a statement that those problems likely stem from the drugs you are using. It’s songwriting like this that puts him miles ahead of his contemporaries that only show one side of the issue, the fun side, the rebellious side or the glamorous side.
The duality of this can be heard in the fist-in-the-air shout about hitting DMT in “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” and in the tragic “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” which pleads It doesn’t have to be like this in its beautiful chorus. Will realizes he’s making irresponsible decisions in a good handful of these songs but this song gives a reason, There’s no comfort in responsibility. Hell, they’re really isn’t.
I could go on here. I could go on about how “1937 State Park” is insanely catchy and reminds me of a specific event in my life, crying as I walked home after a sour confrontation with law enforcement. The clever religious symbolism that pops in at the bridge of “Fill in the Blank” where God tells Will to “stay the *** down” and again when Will accepts his fate of never going to heaven on the epic horn-led “Cosmic Hero”. The brilliant use of modulation and sampling at the end of the quickly revised track “Not What I Needed” which features hilarious lines about sexual awkwardness, receiving really great advice from people, and waiting to get that “real good porn”. The cute off-beat romance of “Unforgiving Girl” and the thought-worm catchiness of its final refrain, but I’d really like to leave it up to you. Just as the final track gives a final moment of clarity and peace to lead us out after this bracing journey I would like to tie this up, or connect the dots, so to speak. This album is an anxiety attack set to record at its absolute finest and Car Seat Headrest has really delivered here. With musical ambition on overdrive, a band full of lively performances, tight, loud production and a diverse, colorful array of instrumentation Car Seat Headrest begins with an album full of problems and by the end offers solutions, however temporary they might be.
"Hangovers feel so good when you know that it’s your last one
Then it feels so good that you have another one."